Is there a Libya?

Issandr El Amrani

At the time of writing, there is a stalemate in Libya. Towns such as Misurata and al-Baida, waypoints between Cyrenaica in the east and Tripolitania in the west, have been alternately in rebel and loyalist hands. The international community rushed to the rebels’ support, then discovered that they were less militarily proficient than it thought, with the result that the Gaddafi regime appears to be regaining its footing. No one seems to know what Nato’s mission is exactly: is it to establish a no-fly zone, a no-drive zone, or bring about regime change? Multiple diplomatic efforts are underway to achieve a negotiated ceasefire, although none is having much success, and the Libyan Transitional National Council – the rebel body recognised by France, Italy, Qatar and the Maldives as the legitimate government – has begun to show signs of internal division. A military standoff is a real possibility and even if Nato were to settle on an alternative strategy, such as arming and training the rebels, this would hardly guarantee their success; loyalist forces have considerable reserves of cash and gold with which to acquire weapons, and the country is used to a black economy that would alleviate the impact of sanctions.

In February, when the uprising began, the situation looked very different. One town after another fell to the rebels and the regime’s reaction was slow and clumsy. In the context of the toppling of Tunisia’s Ben-Ali and Egypt’s Mubarak just weeks before, the success of the rebellion seemed a safe bet, particularly when France unexpectedly recognised the Transitional National Council after Bernard-Henri Lévy persuaded Sarkozy to act quickly. Only a few years before, Sarkozy had given Gaddafi a warm welcome in Paris and, when criticised for it, pointed in his defence to Libya’s abandonment of its nuclear weapons programme, and, more obliquely, to the lucrative market the country offered French industry. But now Sarkozy needs to drum up some support in France.

The current de facto division of Libya into east and west, roughly along the boundaries of the old Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, reflects the absence of any strong historical links between the two regions, which are separated by a 300-mile stretch of desert where the Gulf of Sirte swoops down to brush the 30th Parallel. Indeed, Libya had no history of political unity before its creation by the UN on 24 December 1951. At the beginning of the 20th century, the provinces of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fazzan, in the south-west, had been under the nominal control of the Sublime Porte for about 400 years. Their population of around a million, two-thirds of whom lived in Tripolitania, consisted mostly of nomadic pastoralists. Disease and famine ensured that the number remained stable for more than a century. Europeans had romantic notions of the provinces’ ancient history – the coast had been controlled at various points by the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans and the Byzantines – and the ruined temples these civilisations had left behind. (America’s connection with what is now Libya is even more superficial, for all that the US Marine Corps hymn begins with the lines: ‘From the halls of Montezuma/To the shores of Tripoli’.) They were the last area of North Africa to attract the attention of European colonisers, although during the 19th century the Banco di Roma established branches along the coast.

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