Mention the word “wasta” in the context of Libyan society, and the first thing that is likely to come to mind is Qaddafi and the rampant corruption he reigned over. Connections within the regime’s network provided a select few with easier access to employment, healthcare services, the issue and renewal of identification and documents, positions in training programs, and university admissions. Qaddafi’s regime was toppled in 2011, but revolution and democratisation did not resolve the structural inequalities in which wasta operates, and the degree of corruption is arguably as widespread in Libya today as it was under the dictatorial regime.
While the term has become synonymous with corruption and cronyism in the Arab world, wasta was historically a traditional value embodying mutuality, consultation, and mediation in tribal, kin-based society. Sometimes referred to as “old wasta” or “mediatory wasta”, this pre-colonial practice centered around a tribal chieftain who acted as an arbiter in local disputes. The position was a noble one, and the wasta or middle-man was a man of honour steering conflicting parties towards compromise and resolution. This system of intercession and reciprocity was engrained in a traditional, collectivist society such as Libya (which then existed as Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica).
But with the advent of the Italian invasion and occupation, what was originally a mechanism of mediation and conflict resolution in Libyan society, evolved into a tool which colonial powers used to control the native population. Local notables from influential families were offered favourable access to positions and resources for themselves and their families in return for submission and loyalty to the colonial regime. Among these notables was Hassuna Karamanlı who was appointed as an advisor on numerous Italian commissions including one which examined and reformed waqf or hubous assets in Tripolitania in 1915. In return for his loyalty to the Italian regime, Hassuna was paid a generous monthly salary, and offered other government roles for himself and his sons.
In the later years of the occupation, special Italian citizenship was created as a gesture of gratitude for the military support Libyans provided the Italians in their conquest of Ethiopia in 1936. It was largely a token gesture but allowed awardees to pursue a military career in Libyan units of the Italian forces, and guaranteed government employees would retain their jobs. Perhaps the most famous among those awarded special citizenship was Sulayman Karamanlı in 1938. The son of Hassuna Karamanlı, Sulayman was bestowed the title of Prince by the colonial administration, reportedly frequented the King’s palace in Rome, and was granted refuge with his family in the Vatican after the Second World War.
Another example of favouritism under the Fascist era of Italian colonial rule includes the financial assistance the regime offered to a select few young men of notable families to pursue Islamic education aboard. In 1937, 125 Libyan students were funded by the Italian government to study at al-Azhar University in Egypt.
In addition to the symbiotic collaboration between notable members of Libyan society and the colonial regime, another widespread practice during the Italian colonisation of Libya was the deportation of political prisoners. In an attempt to quash the remaining anti-colonial resistance, the Fascist government deported hundreds of political prisoners to Italian penal colonies in the 1920s. Hoping to secure interlocutors among chiefs and notables of Libyan society to pacify the population, prominent and well-connected prisoners were afforded better treatment and access to resources than other Libyan deportees. They lived on the islands with their families and servants, were provided a monthly stipend by the colonial regime, and are said to have even been permitted to send wires to Mussolini and the King. These esteemed deportees included Salah el Mehdui, the former mayor of Benghazi, Mohamed ben Ali Buzeid, Knight of the Colonial Order of the Star of Italy, government adviser, and member of the fascist Arab Statutory Party, and Mohammed Reda as-Senussi, brother of the later King Idris of Libya.
Family and tribe were already an important fixture in Libyan society before the Italian occupation, but with the social and economic incentives offered by the colonial regime, they became an increasingly powerful engine of social mobility. The introduction of colonial bureaucratic processes disrupted local customs and created conflict in native traditions, and the practice of “old wasta” was transformed into a tool for political expedience. Under colonial rule, the “new wasta” benefited not only in his role as a mediator, but also as a broker of state resources.
Not only in Libya but across the Arab world, this new system of wasta was intimately involved in the building of nation states after the Second World War. The history of the Arab world is one of tribes and families, but the geographic boundaries of post-colonial nation states were generally not delineated to conform to boundaries of traditional tribal areas and historical tribal alliances. States were formed to meet the economic interests of departing colonial powers. What resulted was heterogenous populations with disparate ethnic, historical, and cultural identities and allegiances. Individuals within these states where therefore more likely to identify with their tribe and family than with the new nation state.
While nationhood was a mark of modernity, civility and progress, tribalism became a symbol of backwardness, and a proxy for corruption in the Arab world. Western interpretations of wasta, corruption and good governance imposed on these societies fail to acknowledge cultural variance, and the history and traditions of these lands, and serve only Western economic and geo-political interests in what some have described as a form of neo-liberalism.
An increasingly globalised and urbanised society continues to transform the practice of wasta. Besides tribes and kinship, wasta has developed along other axes in present day Libya including religious sectarianism, and political ideological affiliation, mimicking the evolution of opportunistic behaviours and corruption widespread in Western states. Perhaps to some degree wasta persists in Libyan society due to its tribal structure, however the extended family unit is no longer the bedrock of the organisational context for wasta in the country today.
The system of wasta in Libya is a natural evolution of Italian colonial structures and a by-product of colonial bureaucracy. The term itself implies an inherent and unique trait of corruption present in Arab society. While the social customs surrounding the practice of wasta may be unique to such societies, the essence of opportunistic behaviours that characterise wasta are not. It was Italian colonial rule that exploited the traditional fabric of Libyan society to control the native population by providing mechanisms for political advancement for local agents and their associates. Such mechanisms of favouritism, lobbying, and influence peddling are as widespread today in Italy and other European states as they are in Libya and the Arab world.
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