Americans are rightly debating President Obama’s Libya policy. Some pundits and columnists (including Thomas Friedman, “The Key Question on Libya,” March 25), however, have been putting a dubious spin on the matter by characterizing Libya as a primarily “tribal” society. This interpretation, usually advanced to criticize US support of the UN-authorized intervention, smacks of what the renowned scholar Edward Said called “orientalism.”
To be sure Libyans remain aware of the traditional clans that were once the organizing structure of this vast Saharan nation. No one would deny that the Qadhafa clan enjoys a privileged status in contemporary Libya. Yet to reduce the current uprising to tribal warfare is demeaning to the Libyans who have taken up arms against a ruthless dictator. Friedman’s “tribes with flags” is a gross simplification.
The Libya of traditional lineage groups was a loosely knit society whose principal export was esparto grass. Today’s Libya is an oil-rich state in which larger patronage networks have increasingly displaced the old kinship relations. Under Qaddafi Libya has become a patrimonial regime in which the majority is both politically and economically disenfranchised. The leaders of the opposition council are doctors and lawyers from the new middle class, not tribal chieftains.
While it is legitimate to raise questions about the wisdom of American policy, the debate should not be conducted in old colonialist stereotypes. The rebellion against Qaddafi’s 41-year long dictatorship is clearly inspired by events in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. In my view, the United States has an interest in aligning itself with these forces of change in the Arab world.