The Problem of Regional and Tribal Identities

NEW YORK - In Libya and Yemen, two Arab countries that are experiencing complicated, slow-motion transitions to more representative and accountable rule, we can see most clearly a structural issue of troubled statehood that may also bedevil other Arab countries. This is the problem of strong regional or tribal identities that never fully accepted their inclusion in the independent Arab countries that came into being in the 20th Century. As Libya and Yemen move ahead with plans to draft new national constitutions, they remain threatened by destabilizing regional tensions, including armed clashes and threats by certain regions or tribal groups to break away from the state.
In Libya the problem has reached the point where rebel groups who seized control of oil export facilities in the eastern part of the country and have started shipping oil have triggered an assault by the government in Tripoli. On Monday the government said the navy had seized one tanker that was leaving the rebel-controlled port of Sidra with $36 million worth of crude oil that was destined for international sales outside the control of the Libyan National Oil Company (NOC).
Rebels have seized three ports and partly control a fourth in the eastern region of the country, which had accounted for the export of some 700,000 barrels of oil per day, and have ignored government threats to bomb any ship that attempts to export oil without NOC approval. The Libyan parliament in the capital Tripoli on Monday had also ordered the formation of a military force made up of regular soldiers and allied armed groups from across the country that would liberate the ports within weeks. The rebels seek political autonomy for eastern Libya and a share of oil revenues that previously had all been managed by the central government. They have also said that they would view any attack on the tanker as "a declaration of war."
This is just the most dramatic example of the problems that Libya has experienced in keeping the country together since the overthrow of former leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. Work continues on writing a new national constitution and having it ratified by the citizenry. But as the oil export incidents indicate, it will be rough going to achieve a consensus on this by citizens in the three principal regions of Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east, and Fezzan in the south.
Yemen suffers a similar problem of strong differences in tribal and regional identities that have always plagued the country, and included bouts of civil war and tribal clashes over decades. After Ali Abdullah Saleh was removed from office in 2012 in a deal brokered by neighboring Saudi Arabia, Yemen entered into a transitional process whose toughest challenge was agreeing on a constitution whose power-sharing formula satisfied all major segments of the population. After a year of negotiations and dialogue, it was agreed that the constitution would reflect a decentralized system of governance comprising six regions: four in the former north and two in the former south.
While this major issue continues to be debated and finalized, fighting persists among Shiite Houthi militants and Sunni tribes in al-Jawf province, and in the last four days over 40 people have been killed. These sorts of clashes have been going on for nearly a decade in the northern regions of Yemen, especially in Saada province along the Saudi border, but are now occurring closer to the capital of Sanaa. Some analysts believe this fighting reflects the desire by pro-Houthi militants to tighten their grip on the north before the country implements the new decentralized federal system.
As in most such tensions and clashes within individual Arab countries, the situation is complicated by the involvement of other Arab and foreign countries that use their material, financial, political or military power to help their allies and defeat their foes. This divide in recent years has often coincided with Shiite-Sunni tensions, which also coincide with Iranian-Saudi or other foreign rivalries.
At the heart of this problem, so evident in Libya and Yemen this week, is the frailty of some Arab states that were never created or validated by their own citizens, but rather by the decisions of foreign colonial powers or victorious local tribal warlords—and after independence were ruled by autocrats. The constitutional processes that Libya and Yemen are still trying to navigate are the best antidote to this troubling legacy of frail states that can only be held together by dictatorial central authorities—usually comprised of a family with hundreds of thousands of armed guards, as Libya and Yemen were under their former rulers. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri. Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri - distributed by Agence Global