Tyranny in the Islamic world

Keeping the tribe alive

In this essay, Libyan author Faraj Alasha explains how Arab autocrats use tribal logic to run institutions of state, turning political parties into family clubs and loyalty to the country into loyalty to the head of the ruling clan

The Arabic word for "tribe" – qabila – has the same root as the particle qabla, which is used to denote everything that is prehistoric: the pre-urban age, the pre-civilisational era, etc. Tribal life means primal life; life in collectives, families, clans and traditions; life in a pre-political, pre-ideological, pre-state environment.

If, as assumed by modern civilisational philosophy, the history of the city is the history of the mind and the city is essentially the home of mental and institutional rationality, then the history of the tribe is a history of mythology and legend, a history in which the village dominates everything and everything is subject to the changing of the seasons, the lunar calendar and the rain, where all that one has is all that soil, animal and loom provide.

In this world, everything is in God's hands and hinges on his bounty or his wrath, the source of fertility and drought respectively. The thing that keeps the tribal community together in all this is the concept of the shepherd and the flock, whereby the shepherd is the one who protects his flock and dictates to it. To this end, the shepherd provides pastures and water and guards the sheep with his hounds.

Tribal tyrants

The official biographies of clan tyrants such as Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Gaddafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh all sing the praises of each of these men for having tended sheep as children, just like the Prophet Muhammad.

Libyaʹs former dictator Muammar Gaddafi (photo: Christophe Simon/AFP/Getty Images)
Of honourable shepherds and despots: the official biographies of clan tyrants such as Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Gaddafi and Ali Abdullah Saleh all sing the praises of each of these men for having tended sheep as children, just like the Prophet Muhammad. Gaddafi even wrote a book "The village… the village… the earth… the earth and the suicide of the astronaut", which presents rural tribal society as the romantic ideal, while associating modern city life with all that is negative

Tribal structure is simple and prehistoric. Based on oral tradition, it is kept alive by signs, symbols, signals, places and objectives. Its narratives are consistent and strict. Nothing breaks through its socio-cultural oral heritage and its unquestioned, habitual activities with regard to way of life, methods of production and oral cultural traditions – all of which remained unchanged for centuries until the dawn of the Age of Colonialism and Oil.

It was only the surreal geological coincidence known as oil deposits that turned everything upside down. Before the discovery of oil, tribes (e.g. on the shores of the Persian Gulf or in Libya) relied on water and pastures for their survival and produced their food themselves by keeping livestock and raising crops. The most complex instrument they possessed was an animal-drawn plough. Their children listened by candlelight to their grandmothers telling stories of demons and the daughter of the sultan and the heroic deeds of Abu Zayd al-Hilali.

Indeed, all was as it was in the days when the medieval sociologist Ibn Khaldun wrote: "Co-existence and co-operation [of tribes] for work, the construction of dwellings and the production of food extends only as far as is necessary for life and survival without ever going beyond that and without them being in a position to do more."

Power through authority and violence

With its principle of tribal cohesion on the basis of kinship and ancestry, the clan society, which was suddenly transformed into an urban society by the influx of petrodollars and population grown, fed like a parasite on the modern city-state system, which is built on institutions that in turn are built on authority. This authority is based on the distribution of responsibility, on clearly defined regulations and on constitution, the law and justice. It is the opposite of the personified authority in the form of the strength of an individual, the shepherd or the sheikh, who is basically responsible for everything.

While tribes can consist of clans, kinfolk, extended families or other kinds of structure, the city is made up of classes, institutions, production relationships and means of communication, culture and ethics.

And while the city brings forth people that are subject to the changing, conflicting values of a trade- and industry-based economy, the tribal society retains its unchangeable, Bedouin social structure that reproduces itself within the framework of a subsistence economy: agriculture and pasture farming and, at best, primitive trading activities. On these things are based all the concepts, customs and traditions that themselves shape life: marriage, divorce, revenge, raids, honour and shame, capture, dividing of the spoils and banishment from the tribe.

The traditional tribal society dissolves in the modern state. However, tribal structures continue to exist in the city, even in those cases where the coincidence of a geological discovery by the West turns a centuries-old society into an urban one.

After states began gaining independence – in particular from the 1960s onwards – entire belts inhabited by migrants from the land and the steppes grew up around major Arab cities. These migrants formed the backbone of a class of cheap labourers and the rank and file of newly established armies.

Egyptʹs former president Gamal Abdel Nasser (photo: dpa)
"With the exception of the Nasser military coup in Egypt that sought to establish a national pan-Arabic project on the basis of the Arab Nahda (renaissance), which ended with defeat in the Six-Day War in 1967, all other Arab coups have resulted in a reproduction of autocratic, family-centred, tribal and denominational power, albeit in different guises, deploying different slogans and built on different ideologies," writes Faraj Alasha

The statesmen who putsched their way to power discovered a bottomless reservoir of false awareness in this impoverished, rural Bedouin milieu. And so the culture of the shepherd and flock became the basis of a putschist "revolutionary" power strategy that was buoyed up by slogans such as "freedom, socialism and Arab unity" – propaganda banners without any basis in reality.

With the exception of the Nasser military coup in Egypt that sought to establish a national pan-Arabic project on the basis of the Arab Nahda (renaissance), which ended with defeat in the Six-Day War in 1967, all other Arab coups have resulted in a reproduction of autocratic, family-centred, tribal and denominational power, albeit in different guises, deploying different slogans and built on different ideologies.

Safeguarding power through a sense of tribal cohesion

Take, for example, Saddamʹs rise to power in Iraq. It took place in a society that had become increasingly developed and educated since the 1920s, but adhered to perfidious secret service mechanisms that centred on the power of the family, tribe and religious denomination.

Saddam Hussein started out in a secular, socialist party. Having poisoned his predecessor, President Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, he managed and reinforced his power by applying the tradition of tribal cohesion to his autocratic party, an elite Republican Guard, the secret service and the oil sector.

And so he made his cousin Hussein Kamel al-Majid, who was a police officer, Minister of Defence. To his son-in-law, Hassan Kamel al-Majid, an army officer, he transferred far-reaching executive power privileges including supervision of the military industry, leadership of the Republican Guard and control of the army's arsenal and the smuggling of banned weapons from foreign black markets. All this made him more powerful than the Minister of Defence.

Men walk past a poster in the Saddam Art Centre in Baghdad, showing the former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in martial attitude and Jerusalemʹs Al-Aqsa mosque (photo: AP)
Iconography of a megalomaniac: Saddam was the prototypical modern Arab despot in the Machiavellian tradition of Caliph Muawiyah. He built his state on apparently modern nationalist ideas and made himself the epitome of the nationʹs re-birth, copying Fascist ideologies from Europe in the process

In 1995, Hassan Kamel al-Majid, who was married to Saddam's daughter Raghad, broke with the regime in Baghdad and fled to Jordan, where he was granted asylum by King Hussein. Saddam later tricked him into returning to Iraq, granting him an amnesty and giving him a binding tribal promise that no harm would come to him on his return. Saddam's daughter played a key role in convincing her husband to return. In reality, Saddam had planned to have his son-in-law murdered by a related clan. When Hassan Kamel al-Majid returned to Iraq, he, his brother, father and several cousins were assassinated.

Saddam earned himself a reputation for which he was envied by both his kindred spirits – among them Ali Abdullah Saleh and Muammar al-Gaddafi – and his arch-rival Hafez al-Assad, who also ruled Syria from the helm of the Ba'ath Party. Saddam was the prototypical modern Arab despot in the Machiavellian tradition of Caliph Muawiyah. He built his state on apparently modern nationalist ideas and made himself the epitome of the nationʹs re-birth, copying Fascist ideologies from Europe in the process.

The legend of the "irreplaceable leader"

Because Saddam Hussein was pathologically addicted to self-praise, his press secretary Hussein Abduljabbar Muhsin went so far as to give the president the sobriquet "the irreplaceable leader". The objective was to portray Saddam Hussein as history's chosen leader for Iraq, a president of prophetic rank. And because, as time passed, Saddam himself began to believe this message, he did everything he could to hold on to power for the duration of his natural life, intending to pass the reins of power to his son on his death.

The same could be said of Muammar al-Gaddafi in Libya or Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, oriental despots who likewise ran the military, the apparatus of state and their respective ruling parties according to tribal logic. Gradually, purges turned all of these bodies into family clubs and loyalty to the head of the party into loyalty to the head of the family, or the head of the ruling clan, or both.

Yemenʹs former president Ali Abdullah Saleh (photo: AP)
"Dancing on the heads of snakes": at the beginning of December 2017, Ali Abdullah Saleh broke faith with the Houthi rebels and their patrons Iran in a bid to curry favour with Saudi Arabia. During the violence that ensued, Saleh was shot by Houthi rebels as he attempted to flee Sanaa

Ultimately, each of these three typical clan despots came to similarly gruesome ends in the third millennium. Saddam was hanged by his religious opponents who governed post-Saddam Iraq from Iran with the help of the American occupiers and their Shia accomplices.

Gaddafi was captured by "revolutionaries" while NATO aircraft circled overhead and he tried to hide in a drainage pipe. The very rebels he had described as "rats" just a short time previously lynched him and desecrated his remains.

Finally, President Saleh, who always said that governing Yemen was like "dancing on the heads of snakes", was killed in a hail of bullets fired by those with whom he had been allied until shortly before his death: the Houthis, who are now striving to rule Yemen as the new "chosen" religious and tribal group.

Faraj Alasha

© Qantara.de 2018

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Faraj Alasha is a Libyan writer and publicist.

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