March 14, 2011 | National Post

Bedouin Warriors Know How to Fight

The opposition fighting against the Gaddafi regime is described, not unsympathetically, as “a motley army of poorly armed civilian volunteers.” But what the article does not tell us about the opposition fighters is that they are almost all Bedouin tribesmen, who make up the majority of Libyan citizens, along with Berber tribesmen. Their distant and recent ancestors were storied warriors, who from time immemorial fought with one another for tribal glory, and who united under the banner of the Sanusi Sufi Order to fight two lengthy wars against modern Italian armies that invaded Libya before the First World War.
Bedouin define themselves as warriors. They adhere to collective responsibility — the obligation to come to the defence of their fellow tribesmen and to fight against opponents of their tribe. While in recent decades, many Libyan Bedouin have given up their tents and camels to settle in towns and cities, their tribal organization has been maintained, manifested in competition for people’s committees and other local and regional political positions.
In the current uprising against the Gaddafi regime, we see a resurgence of the tribes and the reactivation of traditional Bedouin mobilization and martial values. Considering this tribal background, it is not surprising that the Libyan opposition turned quickly to armed resistance, while the urbanites and peasants of Egypt and Tunisia did not.

Philip Carl Salzman, professor of anth­ro­pology, McGill University, Montreal.

Read in National Post