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
(see The Sanusi Order , ch. 1). 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
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 (see The Sanusis , this
ch.). 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
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.
Data as of 1987