Libya Table of Contents

Well into the postindependence period, tradition and traditional values dominated social life. Established religious and tribal practices found expression in the policies and personal style of King Idris and his regime. The discovery of oil, however, released social forces that the traditional forms could not contain. In terms of both expectation and way of life, the old order was permanently disturbed.

The various pressures of the colonial period, independence, and the development of the oil industry did much to alter the bases of urban society and to dissolve the tribal and village social structure. In particular, as the cash economy spread into the countryside, rural people were lured out of their traditional groups and into the modern sector. Values, too, began to change under the impact of new prosperity and the arrival of large numbers of foreigners. Since 1969 the pace of change has greatly quickened. Yet, for all the new wealth from petroleum and despite relentless government-inspired efforts to remake Libyan society, the pace of social change was slow, and the country remained one of the most conservative in the Arab world.

Evolutionary Changes in a Traditional Society

To a great extent, the cities have been crucibles of social change in modern Libya. The Sanusi brotherhood drew its strength from the tribal system of the desert, and the cities were marginal. More recently, however, they have become centers of attraction, drawing people out of the tribal and village systems and to some extent dissolving the bonds that held these systems together.

Before the arrival of the Europeans in the 1920s, urban centers had been organized around specific areas referred to as quarters. A city was composed of several quarters, each consisting of a number of families who had lived in that place for several generations and had become bound by feelings of solidarity. Families of every economic standing resided in the same quarter; the wealthy and the notable assumed leadership. Each quarter had leaders who represented it before the city at large, and to a great extent the quarter formed a small subsociety functioning at an intimate level in a manner that made it in some respects similar to a country village.

Occupations had different levels of acceptability. Carpenters, barbers, smiths of all kinds, plumbers, butchers, and mechanics were held in varying degrees of low esteem, with these kinds of work frequently performed by minority-group members. The opprobrium that continued to attach to the occupations even after independence, despite the good pay frequently obtainable, has been attributed to the fact that such jobs did not originate in the pastoral and agrarian life that was the heritage of most of the population.

The arrival of the Europeans disturbed the traditional equili- brium of urban life. Unaccustomed to the ways of life appropriate to traditional housing, the newcomers built new cities along European lines, with wide streets, private lawns, and separate houses. As growing numbers of Libyans began to copy Europeans in dress and habits and to use European mass-produced products, local artisans were driven into reduced circumstances or out of business. European-style housing became popular among the well-to-do, and the old quarters gradually became neighborhoods of the poor.

Urban migration, which began under the Italians, resulted in an infusion of progressively larger numbers of workers and laid the basis for the modern working class. The attractions of city life, especially for the young and educated, were not exclusively material. Of equal importance was the generally more stimulating urban environment, particularly the opportunity to enjoy a wider range of social, recreational, cultural, and educational experiences.

As urban migration continued to accelerate, housing shortages destroyed what was left of quarter solidarity. The quarters were flooded with migrants, and old family residences became tenements. At the same time, squatter slums began to envelop the towns, housing those the town centers could not accommodate. In place of the old divisions based primarily on family background, income became the basic determinant of differentiation between residential neighborhoods.

Italian hegemony altered the bases of social distinction somewhat, but the change was superficial and transitory; unlike the other Maghribi countries, Libya did not receive a heavy infusion of European culture. As a result, the Libyan urban elite did not suffer the same cultural estrangement from the mass of the people that occurred elsewhere in North Africa. At the end of the colonial period, vestiges of Italian influence dropped quickly, and Arab Muslim culture began to reassert itself.

Before independence rural Libyans looked upon their tribal, village, and family leaders as the true sources of authority, and, in this sense, as their social elite. Appointments to government positions were largely political matters, and most permanent government jobs were allocated through patronage. Local governments were controlled largely by traditional tribal leaders who were able to dispense patronage and thus to perpetuate their influence in the changing circumstances that attended the discovery of oil.

The basic social units were the extended family, clan, and tribe. All three were the primary economic, educational, and welfare-providing units of their members. Individuals were expected to subordinate themselves and their interests to those units and to obey the demands they made. The family was the most important focus of attention and loyalty and source of security, followed by the tribe. In most cases, the most powerful family of a clan provided tribal leadership and determined the reputation and power of the tribe.

Various criteria were used to evaluate individuals as well as families in the competition for preeminence. Lineage, wealth, and piety were among the most prominent. Throughout Libya's history, and especially during the period of the monarchy, family prominence and religious leadership became closely intertwined. Indeed, religious leadership tended to reside within selected family groupings throughout the country and to be passed successively from generation to generation. By the 1960s, local elites were still composed of individuals or families who owed their status to these same criteria. Local elites retained their position and legitimacy well into the mid-1970s, by which time the revolutionary government had attempted to dislodge them, often without success.

Rural social structures were tribally based, with the nomadic and seminomadic tribesmen organized into highly segmented units, as exemplified by the Sanusi of Cyrenaica. Originally, tribe members had been nomads, some of the beduin tracing their origins to the Arabian Peninsula. Pride in tribal membership remained strong, despite the fact that many nomads had become sedentary. At the same time, tribally based social organization, values, and world view raised formidable obstacles to the creation of a modern nation-state, because there were virtually no integrative or unifying institutions or social customs on the national level.

In the mid-1970s, the nomads and seminomads who made up most of the effective tribal population were rapidly dwindling in numbers. Tent dwellers numbered an estimated 200,000 in 1973, less than 10 percent of the population, as compared with about 320,000 nomads in 1964. Most of them lived in the extreme north of the country.

By this time, the revolutionary government had come to look upon tribal organization and values as antithetical to its policies. Even Qadhafi, despite his beduin roots, viewed tribes as anachronistic and as obstacles to modernization. Consequently, the government sought to break the links between the rural population and its traditional leaders by focusing attention on a new elite--the modernizers who represented the new leadership. The countryside was divided into zones that crossed old tribal boundaries, combining different tribes in a common zone and splitting tribes in a manner that weakened traditional institutions and the force of local kinship. The ancient ascriptive qualifications for leadership--lineage, piety, wealth--gave way to competence and education as determined by formal examination.

Tribal leaders, however, scoffed at efforts encouraging members to drop tribal affiliations, and pride in tribal lineage remained strong. This was remarkable in light of the fact that many tribes had long ago shed their beduin trappings and had become agrarian villagers. In effect, the government had brought about the abolition of the tribal system but not the memories of tribal allegiance. According to a 1977 report, a survey of tribes had found that more than three-fourths of the members canvassed were still proud of their tribe and of their membership in it. Yet the attitude shown was a generally mild one; there was little opposition to the new programs and some recognition of the government's efforts on their behalf.

The conversion of nomads into sedentary villagers was accompanied or followed by the selective depopulation of many villages, as a disproportionate number of men between fifteen and forty-five left their herds, farms, and villages to seek urban employment. Their defection was a decisive factor in a decline in agricultural production during the 1970s. As a result, the revolutionary government adopted a variety of measures aimed at stemming the migration. Of particular importance was an extremely ambitious 10-year agricultural land reclamation and farmer resettlement scheme initiated in 1972; its aim was to reclaim 1 million hectares of land and provide farms for tens of thousands of rural families. The hold of tradition showed in Cyrenaica, however, where farmers chose to resettle only in projects located in their tribal areas, where they could preserve both tribal and territorial linkages.

Still, many of the most energetic and productive were leaving the countryside to seek employment in cities, oil fields, or construction work or to become settlers in the new agricultural development schemes. In some cases entire farm villages considered by the government to be no longer viable were abandoned and their populations were moved elsewhere; thus, the social and political influence of local leaders was ended forever. At the same time modernization was coming to villages in the form of schools, hospitals, electric lights, and other twentieth-century features. In an increasing number of rural localities, former farm laborers who had received titles to farms also owned a house in which electricity, water, and modern appliances (including a radio and perhaps a television set) made their residences almost indistin- guishable from those of prosperous urban dwellers.

The Revolution and Social Change

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress