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Edition 7 Volume 10 - February 16, 2023

Tribalism and politics in the Middle East

Tribes and the monarchy in Jordan  - Hassan A. Barari
Tribal politics is on the rise and the regime has lost the initiative.

Israeli tribalism?  - Tamar Hermann
Over 70 percent of Jewish Israelis believe that Jews are the chosen people: definitely not different tribes here.

Acceptable national authority creates cohesion  - Omar Rahman
Social structures are not static but they will not evolve without encouragement.

Tribes competing with new national feeling  - Ruth Sherlock
Libya is confronting a diversity that Gaddafi strenuously denied.

Tribes and the monarchy in Jordan
 Hassan A. Barari

Tribes in Jordan have played a unique role in politics over the decades. Tribal support has been instrumental in the survival of the Hashemite regime amid a volatile Middle East. Traditionally, the Jordanian army has drawn most of its recruits from tribes to guarantee their continued support for the regime. The semi-rentier political economy in Jordan has also helped the state create a stake for the tribes in the regime.

During the 1980s, increased educational attainment and sedentarization nurtured a process of detribalization; this meant that tribal affiliation relevant to people's sense of identity was waning. This notion was solidified in the by-election of 1984, when meritocracy rather than tribalism characterized the voting behavior of a great number of Jordanian intelligentsia. Accordingly, tribalism--in the sense that people place family ties above all other political allegiance--was declining starting in the mid-1980s.

By the end of the 1980s, it was obvious that the state could not sustain its rentier relationship with tribes. Due to the economic crisis that befell Jordan at that time, the government started a process of economic restructuring in line with an International Monetary Fund recipe. State subsidies declined and tribal people, who previously had easy access to state resources, found it hard to adapt to this new reality.

The political liberalization of the late 1980s created an opportunity for Jordanians to mobilize politically and realize their objectives. The elections of 1989 were a manifestation that tribalism was further on the decline, as common Jordanians put meritocracy before tribal affiliation. Then, in anticipation of peace with Israel, King Hussein redrew the rules of the game in Jordan. The government gerrymandered an electoral law to emasculate the opposition and secure public support for the peace treaty. A by-product of this politically-motivated change in electoral law to a one-person-one-vote system was that tribalism, as voting behavior, reemerged.

The obvious outcome of this electoral law change is that all parliaments elected ever since have been too weak to stand up to the government. Further, over the last decade economic liberalization and privatization--the shrinking of the public sector and the retreat of the government from economic activity--have both failed to meet the demands of the tribes and been aggravated by an unprecedented level of corruption. The common argument in Jordan today is that state corruption has impoverished Jordanians and especially Transjordanians, who are the social backbone of the regime.

Against this backdrop, and due to the lack of credible political parties that can mobilize the public, protest movements are organized in Jordan along tribal lines, thereby further deepening tribalism as a feature of political behavior in the country. Now that tribes are alienated from the state, they feel more secure in displaying their tribal identity and affiliation. Paradoxically, identification with tribes is a weapon that has recently been deployed by all, and pays off. Even people accused of corruption have been resorting to their tribes for protection from the law. By and large, tribes protect individuals and the state backs down.

If anything, this outcome is the direct consequence of the state's failure to reinforce national identity. The rise of tribalism in Jordan recently has been triggered by the weakness of the state. Unfortunately, successive governments have been incapable of imposing the rule of law because many people no longer trust state institutions. In all surveys that have been conducted by the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, the trust gap between the state and society is widening alarmingly. This is a dangerous trend, particularly against the backdrop of the "Arab spring" that has brought down four regimes so far.

The dilemma--and herein lies the crux of the matter--is that there is no one to get the message. Jordanian society has undergone radical changes in which tribes' loyalty to the regime is no longer unconditional. And yet, decision-makers and particularly those in the office of King Abdullah II are not qualified to address the situation by introducing genuine reform. At the very least, Jordanians need to see the state punish individuals guilty of corruption.

In brief, tribal politics is on the rise and the regime has lost the initiative. The demands imposed by the tribal reform movements on the regime are unprecedented. It seems that nothing short of genuine reform will pacify the tribes and keep them from taking to the street. There is no guarantee they will remain peaceful unless the king steps in and meets the tribes' need for political reform.-Published 16/2/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Hassan A. Barari is professor of Middle Eastern politics at the University of Jordan and the author of "Israelism: Arab Scholarship on Israel, a Critical Assessment" (London: Ithaca, 2023).

Israeli tribalism?
 Tamar Hermann

No doubt, Israeli society is highly fragmented. Here we have a new society composed of a Jewish majority, mostly first, second or--at best--third generation immigrants from numerous countries. Alongside it is a native Arab-Palestinian minority belonging to the national collective dispossessed by Israel's independence and perceived by the Jewish majority as its arch enemy. Together, they can hardly be expected to become a harmonious human fabric.

Students of Israeli society have traditionally pointed to six main cleavages that were often metaphorically referred to as "tribes": Jews and Arabs, secular and religious (orthodox and ultra-orthodox), veterans and newcomers, rich and poor, Ashkenazi and Sephardic, doves and hawks. The relative importance attributed to each of these divisions has depended greatly on the analytic, epistemological and ideological point of departure. There are no "objective", agreed-upon indicators for such social phenomena.

However, there is a near-solid consensus that the cleavage between Jewish and Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel is the deepest, the most persistent and--in terms of Israel's social cohesion--apparently also the most detrimental. It is almost a truism to state that Israeli Jews and Arabs experience extremely dissimilar practical and cognitive realities and that the practical and cognitive meeting points between them are today scarce. As a result, the Jewish-Arab schism in Israel is apparently the only one fitting the common social science definition of tribalism as "the possession of a strong cultural or ethnic identity that separates one member of a group from the members of another group".

It follows that it is highly questionable to what extent "tribal" is an accurate description of Israeli Jewish society. In a tribal society, the lines of division are immutable and tribal identity supreme to all others. Here we argue that within Israeli Jewish society, first, the cleavages are in ongoing transition with their relative importance changing over time, and second, above these cleavages there is an amazingly strong unifying factor: the Jewish Israeli--to a large extent Zionist--identity, forged by the fire of the ongoing Middle East conflict and its international repercussions. Despite polyphonic political public discourse and vociferous struggles over the character of public space, at the end of the day this unifying factor brings all Jewish Israelis under the same roof, particularly on "rainy days".

Take, for example, the secular-religious cleavage that recently captured much attention. Each of the groups--secular, traditional, national orthodox and ultra-orthodox--has its own life style and identity. These are often the source of bitter disagreements and even physical clashes, exacerbated by the growing demographic share and hence empowerment of the latter two groups and the parallel demographic decline and hence sense of defeat of the former.

This notwithstanding, as indicated for example by the January 2023 Peace Index poll, all four groups hold almost identical views on the critical question, "In principle, which of the following two objectives is more important to you: that Israel be a country with a Jewish majority or that Israel rule the whole Land of Israel west of the Jordan?" A highly similar proportion in all four groups--71 percent of self-declared ultra-orthodox, 75 percent of the orthodox, 77 percent of the traditional and 72 percent of the secular--chose the first option. In other words, regardless of their bitter squabbles, these groups are practically unified by their clear preference for an Israeli state with a dominant Jewish majority. Another recent poll revealed that over 80 percent of Jewish Israelis believe in God and over 70 percent believe that Jews are the chosen people: definitely not different tribes here.

Another cleavage often addressed as politically and socially critical is the split between old-timers and newcomers, mostly immigrants from the former USSR. The image of the latter that was prevalent and apparently correct during the 1990s and early 2023s was of a sector holding little respect for democratic values. However, as the 2023 Democracy Index poll suggests, this "tribal" feature has faded away: 29.9 percent of the "Russians", compared to 29.4 percent of "non-Russian" Jewish Israelis, agreed to the statement that a strong leader who does not have to take parliament or the media into consideration is a good system of government for Israel. Other research projects also indicate a strong process of incorporation of the "Russians" into general Israeli Jewish society, thereby reinforcing the need to reconsider our view of the "tribes" metaphor.

On top of that, the data show that the formerly highly salient Ashkenazi-Sephardic cleavage seems to have dissipated significantly because of massive intermarriage, upward mobilization and the educational upgrade of all of Israeli society. In parallel, the rich-poor or class cleavage that once correlated with the secular-religious and Ashkenazi-Sephardic divisions has not developed into a politically significant or socially unifying conscientiousness.

Does this mean that Israeli Jewish society is rock-solid? Definitely not. It is more diversified, polyphonic, and full of internal contradictions than ever. However, particularly when externally threatened, these cleavages are overridden by a still very robust sense of "we-ness"--in stark contradiction to the "spider-web" reading of Israel's internal state of affairs by some external observers.-Published 16/2/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Tamar Hermann is professor of political science at The Open University of Israel and a senior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.

Acceptable national authority creates cohesion
 Omar Rahman

All societies, regardless in which hemisphere of the world they happen to exist, are constructed of disparate groups of people held together by common cultural ties--often fabricated--be they language, history, geography or family. Tribalism is not unique to the Middle East, but in some societies it is persistent and affects the national cohesion of its people; common examples are Libya and Yemen. The issue of tribal identity and its impact on larger national structures comes to the fore mainly when there is a lack of central authority or when a larger social fabric begins to break down.

One example of the latter was the aftermath of the second Palestinian intifada, when the formal authority was disintegrated and lawlessness was at an all-time high. Palestinian society devolved into the lowest common denominator: unique family structures that became the basis for law, order and retribution. Family feuds and vendettas were far more common during this period. Yet, tribal structures in this scenario are not necessarily a bad thing. They can prevent a descent into anarchy and chaos. Today, Palestinian society has returned to a semi-normal national state structure--the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza--with little need for imposing tribal identities.

Likewise, Libya in the post-Muammar Gaddafi era is experiencing a period in which the formal authority--or most formidable authority--of the Gaddafi regime has collapsed and a new national authority has yet to establish itself. Small groups of revolutionaries are feeling empowered and have formed separate, temporary poles of authority based on arms and the resulting force that can be exercised, as well as the clout established during their contribution to the revolution.

Because of Libya's harsh desert terrain and a small population that is confined mainly to urban centers on the coast, the central government's authority has been restricted to its larger population centers. Those people living outside of these areas are largely independent and it makes sense for them to rely on their own social structures in the absence of the state. If this one day changes, and the central state is able to successfully incorporate everyone living within its borders into a functioning and cohesive society, there is little preventing the waning of the tribal identity. Social structures are not static but they will not evolve without encouragement or beneficial alternative.

One may question whether the strength of tribal identity in the Middle East is historically unique and resistant to the formation of a national identity, but this is simply a matter of the strength and success of the nationalization process. It is not as if Libya and the entire Middle East have been stuck permanently in a static social system.

In the end, the outcome of the "Arab spring" will have much more to do with the economy and the ability of the state to offer a system that all its citizens wish to join, than tribalism per se. Only through this process do people begin to transform their identities and affiliations, not beforehand. National cohesion will depend on the success of the state to offer its people good governance and a growing economy that provides jobs. It is also possible to achieve this through the force of arms, but in this case the state will certainly meet armed resistance and have to physically break people of their identity.

Tribalism is not an explanation or excuse for a lack of democracy. Tribes are social structures that can give way to other more efficient social structures if a successful process takes place that people can believe in and voluntarily consent to. Any nation that can rise together to overthrow a despot is capable of forming a national bond.

A more potent threat to social cohesion and the success of a democratic transition will be factional and ethnic infighting that has resulted from the collapse of an authoritarian system that maintained power by cultivating social, ethnic, and religious divides. In this case, old rivalries become the dominant discourse. When this vacuum opens up as it did in Iraq after the American invasion, social strife can pull a nation apart for many years, if not permanently. Syria, at the current moment on the brink of civil war, offers the most somber threat of this type of scenario.-Published 16/2/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Omar Rahman is a freelance journalist in Ramallah whose work can be viewed at www.orahman.com.

Tribes competing with new national feeling
 Ruth Sherlock

In the makeshift military operations room in Libya's Nefusa Mountains, amid crackling radios and milling rebel officers, the "wise men" held council on Libya's future. Sipping sweet tea and donning traditional long robes, elders from rival tribes met for uncomfortable negotiations.

The villages of the Mashaashia tribe stood like ghost towns; the population had fled, their homes and shops had been looted, ransacked and burned. The tribe had supported Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in his attack on neighboring rebellious towns. Now, as the dictator lost his grasp on power, they were paying a heavy price for their loyalty. "We are here to negotiate reconciliation with the Nefusa Mountains, and to plan for a future together," said the leader of the tribe.

Complicated by historical rivalries, the wounds and rancor ran too deep. Within minutes, negotiations turned to enraged mud-slinging. Cups crashed to the floor as the tribal leaders stood up, their fists clenched.

Like Egypt to the east and Tunisia to the west, Libya is confronting a diversity that Gaddafi denied so strenuously that he tried to convince the minority Berbers that they were, in fact, Arabs.

The work of the country's new government, formed in November of last year, has been virtually paralyzed by internecine regional and factional feuds. Armed bands of tribesmen are among hundreds of militias that are proving to be the scourge of the revolution's aftermath.

Hundreds of fighting brigades from towns elsewhere in the west that swept into Tripoli in August of last year for the culminating battle to oust their dictator still show little inclination to leave. Seizing opulent mansions from the Gaddafi family and their wealthy supporters, they stockpile hand grenades and ammunition beside the Jacuzzi and patrol the streets with a swagger of entitlement.

Entourages of pick-up trucks with mounted anti-aircraft guns park outside police stations, overpowering civil security forces should they dare to lock up a member of the militia. Volleys of gunfire still ring through the capital at night with unnerving regularity as rival militias squabble over scraps of quarry.

Throughout the sweeping revolution, citizens across the country shouted for "freedom" and "democracy", and modern democracy remains the aspiration of its new leadership. Men in the new government offices pour over drafts of a constitution, as others work to prepare elections for June.

But the model is not a natural fit. While political institutions have long been lacking, the country's tribal fabric is a vibrant and powerful social structure. One's tribe is viewed as a source of personal protection, security, and identity. Aware of the need to maintain tribal loyalty, Gaddafi bestowed special privileges on members of his own Gaddadfa tribe, and ensured that the biggest tribes shared positions in the security services and military.

Libyans are often imbued with what seems to be a stronger sense of patriotism for their town than for the country. Libyans jokingly refer to the west Libyan city of Misrata as a "republic" after locals established checkpoints around the perimeters of the city, and required foreigners to get special permits to enter.

Tribal loyalties expressed in battle may soon be echoed at the ballot box. Under the new election law, three seats out of five in the National Assembly are reserved for those who run without party ties as independents. Parties, struggling to formulate policies and make themselves known to voters after four decades of one-man rule, can contest only 40 percent of the seats. Those trying to field political parties at an election in June fear that individuals will be able to call on traditional sympathies within their tribe to get elected.

Elsewhere, tribal loyalties may yet play a key role in the unfolding battle for power in Syria. Border regions in the country are largely tribal areas. As the country spirals into violence and the demand for weapons grows, winning the loyalty of those living close to the smuggling routes is crucial for both sides. Weapons and Sunni Muslim insurgents are already seeping through the porous border between Iraq and Syria, joining their "brothers" in the fight against the ruling minority Alawite regime.

As it grapples for control, the regime has sought ever more brutal means of exercising power over the country's tribes. Sheikh Nawaf al-Bashir, head of the prominent Baqara tribe in Syria, recently revealed that Syrian authorities had forced him to conduct an interview with a Syrian state television channel "with a gun to his head" as he professed his tribe's support for the government. The Baqara tribe is one of the largest tribes in Syria, encompassing an estimated 1.2 million Syrian nationals.

As the crisis in Syria deepens, there are signs of dangerous sectarian enmity. Amid the ongoing violence, the fears, insecurities and ideals of both the Sunni and the ruling minority Alawite population are driving deep and dangerous social divisions that threaten to ignite a dangerous and bloody civil war.

In many ways the revolutions of the "Arab spring" have been uprisings of unprecedented unity. Autocratic dictatorships have yielded to millions calling with one voice for the right of self-determination, and for a new national democratic leadership for their country. Time will tell the result. Libyan author Hisham Matar once wrote, "nationalism is as thin as a thread, perhaps that's why many feel that it needs to be anxiously guarded."-Published 16/2/2012 © bitterlemons-international.org

Ruth Sherlock has covered the Libyan and now the Syrian revolutions for the Telegraph and other publications.

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