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.

Islamic Groups

Islamic preachers have become increasingly important for the political processes in Cyrenaica. Preachers are labeled as Salafiyya by the local population. Today, preachers practice in almost every bigger settlement or city. They promote themselves as messengers of a legitimate Islamic political order. Recently Salafiyya configurations, like the Islamic fighting group, have gained influence on the young fighters and they also have erected Islamic fighting groups. The execution of General Abd Al Fatah Younis in July 2011 (with signs of severe torture) was widely perceived as a political message to all opponents of Islam. In recent months the Muslim Brotherhood has reorganized their activities in Cyrenaica. They advocate more moderate but nevertheless conservative ideas of Islam and politics. The activists promote the integration of Islam and democracy into a peaceful Islamic civil society. The speakers are knowledgeable and skilled in communicating with their urban audiences. Here the legitimacy of Islam is a powerful token. The Muslim Brotherhood has gained significant influence in the NTC and in the rebel forces. They are currently working on an alliance with tribal politicians and might contribute to a future conservative tribal-Islamic backlash.


The Libyan Youth undoubtedly spearheaded the revolutionary events. Around 50% of the population in Cyrenaica is between the ages of 16 and 35, yet their social, political and economic opportunities of participation were and are limited. The leading role of the youth in the revolution not only represents a “Facebook generation“ that resists a ruthless dictatorship but also stands for a clash of generations that already existed before the revolution and that will continue to exist in the post-Gaddafi era. Nevertheless, the degree of inventive forms in the making of politics is impressive and conforms with global forms and practices of civil rights movements. Thus notions of direct democracy, civil and human rights are dominant. There is an array of diverse decentralised committees and groups that work on a project-oriented basis with a clear anti-establishment attitude. The creation of newspapers and radio stations, blogs, music and video clips is evidence of tremendous cultural creativity. Women also participate in committees and working groups and some volunteered as nurses at the front. However, it remains an open question whether these achievements will lead to a significant empowerment of women in the post-Gaddafi era particularly because of the above mentioned conservative alliance of the tribal and the Islamic groups.

The readiness of the young men to sacrifice their lives for the revolution is related to this energy of change. For the first time in their lives the youth experienced their agency and sense of dedication to a common goal. The enhanced self-esteem of these young men has already affected the relations between generations. It is not surprising that the young fighters at the front were only partly under the command of senior men and there was a certain attitude to reject orders of the older men. Nowadays around 40 different youth militia patrol the city of Benghazi with unclear chains of command and authority. The prevailing culture of martyrdom also might have ambivalent effects. In addition, trauma through warfare will certainly create problems. The integration of youth will become one of the major challenges for Libyan society in the future. The youth will call for improved political participation and enhanced social and cultural autonomy, and will also demand concrete economic prospects.

Civil Society

Apathy and atomization are the terms that characterized the situation of the Libyan urban opposition in the Gadaffi era. For the past 40 years, political parties, NGOs, civil rights movements and even simple meetings among intellectuals were forbidden, oppressed and systematically eliminated by Gadaffi’s regime. Nevertheless the political creativity and the sense of self-help and self-organization that emerged are impressive. For the first time in years urban intellectuals have come together to discuss political matters in an open and free atmosphere. Some of the committees are connected to the civil Libyan opposition abroad. The international dimension is influential. In October 2011, the first institute for Libyan Studies was opened in Doha, Qatar. The donor community is focusing on Libyan civil society. However the relations between urban intellectuals and the tribal political elite and the emerging Islamic groups are highly problematic. They are competitors with an uneven distribution of power that favors tribal and Islamic groups. Thus the identification of civil society with Western donors will certainly cause criticism by the emerging conservative tribal-Islamic alliance. This is particularly true for women who some already perceive as the first losers of the revolution.


The current situation in Cyrenaica is still being shaped by the revolution. However, the polymorphy of tribal, state, Islamic, civil and adolescent political cultures are characteristic. This is obviously not in accordance with theoretical models of development derived from European history such as state-governance, the legal state and democracy. Global models and ideas about democratic representation may still be integrated into Libyan political theory and practice, however regulation of competing factions and rationales will be a tremendous challenge.

Thomas Hüsken is senior research fellow at the Department for Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Bayreuth. He has published on tribal politics in the borderland of Egypt and Libya. This text is based on three months of field studies in Libya in February, May and September 2011.