Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the end of colonialism, Middle East countries have adopted a Western-style political system, which for some of them led to instability and wars. The solution may lie in the tribal system …
In an interview with the editor of La Stampa, an Italian newspaper, Israeli scholar Mordechai Kedar argued that to reach peace and stability in the Middle East, tribal states should return. In his view in fact, tribes are the most suitable and proper type of political organization for many countries of the region. The nation-state instead, as a political institution originated in Europe, which partly substituted the tribes, has proved to be inefficient for many of those countries. The only exceptions, according to Kedar, seem to be the Gulf states, because of the presence of only one dominant tribe, which helped to form homogeneous and stable nations.
On the other hand, countries like Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen where there are dozens of tribes, each one with its own army and territory, have been kept united only through dictatorship. However, this did not prove to be either right nor functional. The Arab Spring and the fall of Gheddafi showed how fragile those regimes were, urging critical rethinking of which political system is more fitting for them.
Accordingly, the international community should consider more critically the tribes’ role; not necessarily as something outdated and backward, but as a cultural institution, born out of specific historical and geographical circumstances which for centuries have represented a coherent and stabilizing element in those societies.
Some progress has already been made. For instance, in April 2017 the Italian government signed up to an agreement with the two main southern Libyan tribes, the Tebu and the Awlad Suleiman, to stop migrants reaching Mediterranean shores as well as to end the hostilities between them in the area. The two tribes have been in conflict since the fall of Gheddafi, and therefore this reconciliation represented an important step towards a more stable and united Libya. But more needs to be done. There are dozens of tribes which cannot be ignored and the Libyan case is not the only one.
In Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, for example, recognising the importance of tribes is now more crucial than ever. These countries have been experiencing a tragic civil war and foreign military interventions, placing under question the role of tribes and states. In Yemen, tribes have always been a cornerstone of the country, and where a state is lacking or absent, they fill the gap bringing order and stability. Their role is therefore essential not only for understanding and solving the ongoing civil war, but also for building a more stable and prosperous country afterwards.
On the other hand, in Syria, tribes have not traditionally had as much importance as in Libya and Yemen. However, as the civil war weakened the state’s power their importance has increased once again, showing them to be indispensable players in the country’s political and social structure — especially in the eastern region.
Finally, in Afghanistan, despite all the attempts for over a hundred years to build a united and centralized nation-state, tribal organization still plays an important and vital role, restraining the power of the state.
All in all, these cases show that tribes are still powerful and integral elements in these societies, but less so in politics. Consequently, they should be given more political importance, integrating them into the existing institutions.
Columbia University scholar Daniel Corstange said that tribes are:
‘the second-best substitutes for an absent or weak state’.
Any change in the institutional framework, however, has to come from within, and not from foreign powers. Still, the international community might help in this process by giving them more relevance and respect.