February 2012



Spray painting the Libyan revolution

by Thomas Hüsken, Anthropology News, January, 2012

This commentary will explore some actors and patterns of the recent political culture in the Cyrenaica region of Libya with special regard to the revolutionary events. This political culture is shaped by the polymorphy of tribal, Islamic and civil urban forms of political organisation as well as varying notions of power and legitimacy.
Tribe and Revolution

In his early years Gaddafi abolished the tribe as a legal unit and reorganised local administrative structures, explicitly replacing tribal politicians with followers of the revolution. However this collided with the political, social and cultural realities in the country. In the past decades of Gaddafi’s regime tribal leaders had not only come to dominate and control a significant part of the state but also charged the political culture with tribal notions and practices. It is thus not surprising that tribal politicians have not been at the forefront of the revolution. Nevertheless they have actively shaped and organized a great deal of the transitional political order in the last months. They have come to dominate the local transitional councils in Cyrenaica due to their skills as producers of order and conflict mediators on the basis of the tribal customary law. They have gained significant influence in the National Transitional Council (NTC). The production of order is accompanied by a broad common sense on tribal culture among the population. Both build the legitimacy of these leaders. The political practice of these politicians is shaped by a consensus-oriented process of moderation and negotiation that is embedded in tribal traditions but is also informed by their education and by experiences in governance and business. Their political visions focus on the continuation of a regional and local intermediary rule between the central state and the people. The reintroduction of polygamy and Sharia by NTC Chairman Mustafa Abdul Jelil in November 2011 was an affirmative signal towards these leaders. In my understanding they will play an important role in the political future of post-Gaddafi Cyrenaica and in Libya as a whole. (more…)


Outside the Hadda mosque, March, 1985; Photo by Daniel Martin Varisco


by Gregory Johnsen, Waq al-Waq, February 24, 2012

The closest thing the US has to a “Yemen Czar” is John Brennan, President Obama’s Deputy National Security Adviser, and so when he speaks on Yemen – as he did recently – it is a good idea to pay attention.

On Monday, the eve of Yemen’s one-man elections, Brennan was in Sanaa, and during his time there he sat down with some journalists, and the US Embassy has since published the transcript of his roundtable.

Brennan has a lot to say, and I would encourage everyone to read his full remarks, but one of the things that stood out to me was Brennan’s comments on military restructuring.

Obviously military restructuring is going to be one of the most important and most controversial processes of the post-Salih era in Yemen. Salih’s relatives and fellow tribesmen have a stranglehold on much of the military and security apparatus in Yemen. Salih spent more than 33 years building this network, and dismantling it is going to require a great deal of patience, effort and knowledge.

Imagine the security services like a giant Jenga tower and you get some idea of the problem: the US wants to remove some key blocks, without seeing the whole thing tumble down. (more…)


President Salih, well at least in his downsized role as president of the General People’s Congress, has returned to Yemen from New York, where he was receiving medical treatment. Yet, as this news report shows, the hand-shaking is not over. Nor is the head-shaking of those of us on the side lines…


Unknown Artist. Sinners in Hell. Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta. Torcello (Italy). 12th century)

Yesterday I had the privilege of hearing a lecture by the anthropologist Talal Asad, who discussed the impact of the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt based on conversations he has held with Egyptians there and with a keen sense of historical insight. In the case of Egypt it is not just that it was sucked into strong-man rule for three decades under Mubarak, but that an entire generation has known nothing but cronyism and a firmly entrenched military elite still holds the reins, despite the street scenes on CNN. No one knows what exactly will happen next, least of all the media pundits who exude an expertise mentality that often borders on the ludicrous. One of the points that particularly struck me as poignant is the role of fear as a key aspect of all power politics. Mubarak, like Ali Abdullah Salih in Yemen and Ben Ali in Tunisia and even the Asad clan in Syria, have justified their self-serving iron grip as a quasi-secular bulwark against the specter of radical Muslims. They pretend to be the right kind of Muslims preventing the wrong kind of Muslims from taking over and returning the region to the 7th century. And Western nations, along with a number of Arab citizens, let fear dictate policy and overrule common sense.

Fear is on all sides, of course. Those who have dared to defy the power of the state have had good reason to fear, as the bloody security apparatus let loose in Syria amply demonstrates. Any trumped-up kind of “other” is an easy target for fear, especially when religious or ethnic identity is ascribed. In fact, as Talal noted, Mubarak went to great lengths to foster tension between Copts and Muslims in Egypt, creating fault lines for conflict where mutual cooperation had often been the norm. Religious sects do it to each other, dragging out the infidel charge and the heresy alibi whenever convenient. This is not at all unique to the Middle East or those who call themselves Muslims. When Rick Santorum states that President Obama does not base his policies on the Bible and Franklin Graham questions the president’s faith, religious passion is harnessed for political gain.

But what do we really mean by “fear”? (more…)


The ink is barely dry on the thumbs of millions of Yemeni voters and the political rhetoric has once again heated up. One of the leaders of AQAP, Fahd al-Qasa‘a, is lashing out against the election of al-Hadi. Hardly any surprise here. But at the same time, as reported in the Yemen Post, he is blasting (so far only in words) Islah, the largest Islamic party in Yemen. For anyone who knows Yemen, this is also hardly a surprise, although many on the outside still think an “Islamist” is an “Islamist” no matter what the facts on the ground. Alienating Islah, which is as much a regional power block as a religious party, seems a sign of desperation or else a calculated outreach to disaffected southerners. Criticism of al-Hadi as a clone of the United States, Saudi Arabia and the GCC resonates well with many southerners, where AQAP hopes to make inroads. The former President of the PDRY and Vice President to Salih after unification, Ali Salim al-Baydh, has also labeled al-Hadi a hack in the grasp of foreign interests. Strange bed fellows indeed.

But the plot thickens. The statements by al-Qasa‘a were quoted in a newspaper owned by Ahmad Ali Abdullah Salih, the man who would be king after his father. You can follow his exploits on a Facebook page. The current dissension among the political rivals is anything but tranquil. It almost makes the current Republican debate circus in the United States look like a love fest. But one need not quote Machiavelli to see that the bottom line here is political power, not religious persuasion. Anyone who thinks that Zaydi vs. Shafi’i is still the way to carve Yemen up into sects or that Islah and AQAP are of the same cloth needs to do a lot of rethinking.

And the game is far from over.


On Friday, February 24, Professor Talal Asad will be speaking in the CUNY Graduate Program in Anthropology series. His topic is Fear and Revolution: Reflections on Egypt after Mubarak. This will be held at The Graduate Center, CUNY, 365 Fifth Avenue at 34th Street, New York, NY 10016 in Room C415A (concourse level). Light refreshments will be served afterward in the Brockway Room, Rm. 6402. For more information, click here.


The Yemeni election was not destined to be a cliff hanger and never in doubt. With only one candidate, seemingly supported from many sides, millions of Yemeni citizens went to the polls yesterday with a blue thumbs up for the interim president-in-waiting, Abd Rabbou Mansour al-Hadi. Considering that al-Hadi has been in the innocuous position of Vice-President to the outgoing President Ali Abdullah Salih, for some 17 years, this changing of the guard is seemingly only at the palace gate. So some people might wonder why it was worth spending an estimated 48 million dollars to hold an election that was a foreordained outcome. The answer is not that democracy is served by having only one candidate to vote for, but democracy may be viable by the mere fact that Ali Abdullah Salih is no longer in charge. The vote for al-Hadi was less a vote for the consensus candidate al-Hadi than a vote to move on after the fall of Ali Abdullah. And despite the ongoing pockets of violence in several parts of the country, in effect this is the first relatively peaceful transfer of power where the leader is negotiated out of office rather than seeking asylum.

The issue is not whether Yemen is ready for democracy, as though democracy is pure only in its Western trappings, but if the various factions in Yemen can sort out their legitimate grievances without having a strong man in power for life. Before Ali Abdullah the tenure of Yemen’s military-coup leaders was cut short by assassinations. The fact that Ali Abdullah lasted for over three decades is remarkable, to say the least. While not the butcher that Asad has shown himself to be in Syria, the regime hardly had clean hands. But Yemen’s natural wealth has been squandered by corruption and incompetence, two problems that usually accompany dictatorships. The water is running out and so is the oil, so in a very real sense time is running out to resolve the political problems. The secessionists in the south and the Huthis in the north boycotted the election, but al-Hadi will have to bring them into the political framework. This is not an impossible task, but much now rests on the shoulders of a man who is not necessarily in control of the military, which itself is split. (more…)

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