العنوان هنا
Studies 08 February, 2012

The Political Aspects of the Tribal Phenomenon in Arab Societies: A Sociological Approach to the Tunisian and Libyan Revolutions

Keyword

Mohammad Najib Boutaleb

Tunisian sociologist with interests in development, education, culture and science. A lecturer in sociology at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Tunis and a professor with Masters, DEA, and Doctoral degrees. He also serves as the head of several exam committees. He worked as a full-time expert in charge of future planning at the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization ALECSO between 2000 and 2003. He has published several books and studies, as well as dozens of articles.

Introduction

In the midst of the events that came to be known as "the Arab Spring", which was characterized by the outbreak of revolutions that appeared to be qualitative and promising, new terms, vocabularies and slogans emerged that were surprising to some and bizarre, or even offensive, to others. Among the epithets ascribed to days of particularly ambitious protest (frequently taking place following Friday prayers) around the region, some were notable for their content, such as "the Friday of the tribes" in Syria. During the political mobilization for and against the Libyan regime, some of the events were dubbed "tribal conferences" by their organizers. In Jordan, "The political union of the sons of the Bani Hasan tribe" demanded the formation of a "government of national salvation". In other countries, such as Tunisia and Yemen, tribal struggles broke out over regional "thrones". On the one hand, the manifestations of this dynamic differ from one Arab society to another, ranging from the geographic, the regional, and the social to the economic, the political, and the cultural. On the other hand, however, all of these components act according to catalysts that are linked to the traditional structures that dominate society - the most important of which being the tribal structure. This structure has left its mark on Arab social and political history, leaving a legacy whose role cannot be ignored in the contemporary era despite all of the blows to which the tribe has been subjected, both internally and externally.

This influence applies to most Arab countries whether in the Levant or the Maghreb, and from Iraq to Mauritania. Regardless of the complexities of social reality that have produced overlaps between the tribal and ethnic components in some societies, traditional structures and communal institutions still affect the direction of political and social events to varying degrees. The transformations witnessed by the region since the early days of the Arab Spring have shown that the roots of the crisis, and the motivations of the protesters, do not lie solely in economic and political factors: they cannot be separated from the influence of social and cultural factors, some of which are intrinsically linked to the tribal phenomenon.

It is true that these revolutions are generally characterized by both radicalism and resilience, and that they respond to the process of historical evolution of the region's societies, whose political and social retardation has persisted too long. At the same time, these societies now find themselves confronted by numerous foreign and domestic challenges that must be elucidated and deciphered. In order to carry out these tasks, the current Arab reality - with its pluralism, overlaps, and challenges - must be submitted to further scholarly scientific research. This would contribute to clarifying visions and adopting processes of analysis, interpretation, and understanding in a manner that helps political actors in the region to appreciate the changes in their societies and their resultant requirements as these societies evolve through the profound changes taking place in the world. Today, Arab societies are in utmost need of the establishment of alternative institutions capable of resilience, survival, and enhanced performance.

In keeping with this direction, the scientific hypothesis on which I have relied to examine this subject holds that Arab political thought and practice are not yet sufficiently aware of the historic role of the tribe, which has had an influence over a long social and economic history, and affected the shaping and behavior of political elites, especially during the phase of the building of the nation-state, which lasted more than two-thirds of a century. With some exceptions[1], there are insufficient numbers of serious studies of this question, whether among political actors or intellectual and scholarly elites: most of these have endorsed the notion that we are witnessing modernization without modernity, and growth without development, believing that this modernization has succeeded in uprooting or neutralizing traditional structures during the wave of liberation from colonialism and the construction of nation-states. Even many of those who have discussed the influences of the tribal question have not liberated themselves from either academic formulas' constraints or their fear of risking the difficulties of the field.

Thus the academic scene regarding the stature of the tribe, its role, and the rules governing its change has suffered marked deficiency, and therefore an inability to access one of the most important social and political problematics affecting contemporary Arab reality. Overlaps of interests, complexities of processes and accelerations/escalations of events have all served to feed this academic confusion. This has prevented us from moving beyond academic judgments that oscillate between overlooking reality and hastily applying pre-cast models and concepts without taking into account the societal and historical specificities in question, which led to the emergence of a formalism in social and political analysis.

Today's Arab societies are in dire need of studies focusing on their active social structures in a serious and comprehensive manner, exploiting the environment of freedom that may herald a new Arab intellectual and scientific renaissance, which could activate much of our wasted human and material resources. Theorizing the tribal structure from the socio-political perspective will be among the priorities of social science research because these structures are no longer subjected solely to historical and anthropological studies that view tribes as belonging to the pages of history.

An inability to diagnose the Arab social reality is what led to the inability to change it, due to a lack in understanding of its active mechanisms. Both political despotism and foreign intervention have helped to deepen this deficiency, and therefore to sabotage positive transformations.

To read the full text, click on the image below.

-------------------------------- 

  • [1] Among the few attempts to examine these matters closely are some daring theorizations formulated by Arab thinkers like Barakat, Al-Jabiri, Ghalyun, Al-Taizini, Bishara and Djait. These attempts have not yet led, however, to a foundational intellectual movement that adopts cumulative work and dissemination in order to address the confusion of Arab political analysis and its dysfunctions.