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.

In 1911, Italy, a latecomer to empire, decided to annex Tripolitania and Cyrenaica and turn them into what the proto-Fascist Gabriele d’Annunzio called its ‘Fourth Shore’. After formally notifying the Ottoman Empire, the Italians launched an invasion, starting with the major coastal cities. It was not until 1913 that it got Tripolitania under control; Cyrenaica proved more difficult still. They managed to hold onto the coastal towns and turn them into garrisons, but they met fierce resistance from the Senussi, a religious order founded in Mecca in 1837 which combined Cyrenaica’s traditional Sufi teachings with Salafist ruminations on the need for an Islamic renewal. The Senussi had fought against French encroachments into southern Cyrenaica and Fazzan in 1902, and now turned their energies on the Italians. Interrupted during the First World War, when Italian troops were needed elsewhere, this ‘pacification’ would continue until 1943, when the Allies finally pushed out the Italians and Germans after the battle of al-Alamein.

In a brief section on the Italian period in A History of Modern Libya (2006), Dirk Vandewalle writes:

It was, by any standard, a brutal and unsparing campaign of subjugation. Estimates of overall deaths among the Libyan population as a whole vary considerably, but one reliable source estimates that the number of deaths, from all causes except natural ones, from 1912 to 1943, was between 250,000 and 300,000, from a population that stood at between 800,000 and one million at the time. Most of these occurred during the Fascist period, when, by execution alone, an estimated 12,000 Cyrenaicans died in 1930 and in 1931.

By killing more than a quarter of the total population, the Italians substantially weakened the power and social structure of the Cyrenaican tribes and the Senussi order. They made a pretence of acting in the best interests of the locals: Mussolini, foreshadowing Gaddafi in his deadly buffoonery, even proclaimed himself Protector of Islam in Tripoli in 1937. Il Duce’s policies did provide a rare and lasting national icon, however, with the martyrdom of Omar al-Mukhtar, a Cyrenaican tribal sheikh who led the guerrilla efforts against the Italians. Al-Mukhtar was captured in September 1931, and Rodolfo Graziani, Italy’s commander-in-chief in Libya, hurried from Rome to give him a perfunctory trial. Some 20,000 tribesmen and notables were forced to attend his public hanging. His name is now used by the rebels as a rallying call, his portrait adorns walls throughout the east, and his war cry – ‘We will never surrender, we will win or die’ – has become the unofficial slogan of the uprising.

The Italian colonial era left behind a traumatised population, and a tradition, in some coastal towns, of excellent coffee. The Italians sent 110,000 settlers to what they now called Libya, building infrastructure such as ports and a two-lane coastal road that linked Tunisia to Egypt for the first time. (In 2009, on the occasion of the celebrations of Gaddafi’s 40th year in power, Berlusconi opened a new coastal highway that Italy had financed. The Italian air force flew overhead, its jets releasing green vapour trails in honour of the Gaddafi-era Libyan flag. The highway was the price Italy paid to get a share of Libya’s lucrative oil and arms contracts, along with a treaty of mutual friendship that prohibited war between the two countries. The treaty has now been suspended by Italy’s parliament.) Italy saw Libya as a solution to its own surplus population – most of the settlers were landless peasants lured by the prospect of eventually owning the farms set up by the colonial government’s land reclamation projects – and it never showed much interest in recruiting natives into the administration it had created. At most, they would be hired as menial wage labourers. As Vandewalle notes, Libyans’ early encounters with the modern state made the relative egalitarianism of the tribal way of life all the more appealing – which goes some way towards explaining Gaddafi’s stubborn suspicion of centralised authority, captured in the first sentence of his Green Book: ‘The instrument of government is the primary political problem facing human communities.’

After the Second World War political life of a sort emerged in the more cosmopolitan Tripolitania, which favoured unification of the provinces, while Cyrenaica continued to support the heir of the Senussi, Sayyid Idris al-Senussi, and refused to be part of any state not ruled by him. The inhabitants of Fazzan preferred to go on being ruled by the French. The Great Powers initially favoured the idea of three trusteeships: Italian in Tripolitania (where some 40,000 Italian settlers remained), British in Cyrenaica and French in Fazzan. The intensification of the Cold War in the late 1940s changed that view, with the US and Britain now seeing an independent Libya as more to their advantage: the trusteeship system did not allow for the establishment of military bases. As the American ambassador noted at the time, ‘a glance at the map shows the strategic value of Libya … without which there might have been little interest in the emergence of an Arab kingdom in North Africa … If Libya had passed under any form of United Nations trusteeship, it would have been impossible for the territory to play a part in the defence arrangements of the free world.’

Thus was created the United Kingdom of Libya, a portmanteau state born out of compromise, whose new ruler, the Senussi chief King Idris, now had to unite it. It was one of the poorest countries in the world, with an annual income per capita of about $25, a 94 per cent illiteracy rate and not a single doctor – to this day, Libya imports much of its medical know-how, while Libyan visitors ensure rich pickings for doctors in Malta and Tunisia. Its three component parts insisted on a strongly federal system, and in its first version, from 1951 to 1963, the kingdom maintained three distinct capitals. Its chief source of income until oil revenues began to flow in the late 1950s derived from the rental of two military bases to the Americans and the British; by the end of the 1950s, Libya received the highest volume of US aid per capita in the world.

The king and his entourage were able to accrue considerable personal power, particularly after oil extraction began, but authority was also devolved to the provincial and local level, blocking the creation of an effective national administration. The king maintained two Praetorian guards, the Cyrenaican Defence Force and Tripolitanian Defence Force, each composed of tribesmen loyal to the Senussis. Since the monarchy banned political parties, the parties that had emerged after the war – in Tripolitania the National Congress Party, in Cyrenaica the Omar al-Mukhtar Club – could not operate, and the idea of a unified Libya gained little traction. Idris himself was much more interested in the future of Cyrenaica, where he spent most of his time, than he was in being the ruler of Tripolitania. Even when the federal system was abolished in 1963 and the country became the Kingdom of Libya, much informal power remained in the hands of Idris’s entourage – Tripolitanian technocrats and the Senussi family itself, which was plotting to ensure the succession. In this it was not unlike the Libya of the last decade, when the only people with real power were the Gaddafi family, its extended tribe, and a few loyalist technocrats.

In 1969 Gaddafi and his Free Officers mounted their coup and easily overthrew a monarchy now increasingly perceived as corrupt, scheming and responsible for rising inflation. The income from foreign military bases was no longer needed now that petrodollars were gushing in and Idris’s conservative, pro-Western stance was resented. The monarchy’s chief enemy had been Radio Cairo, with its message of pan-Arab revolution, and Gaddafi idolised Nasser. The Free Officers wanted to be part of an Arab and Muslim nation rather than a Libyan one. Later on, after repeated clashes with other Arab leaders (notably King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, whom it is alleged he tried to have assassinated in 2002 when he was still crown prince), Gaddafi gave up on his attempts to unify the Arab world. He played down his early Islamist, pan-Muslim ideology and looked south instead, appointing himself King of Africa through generous chequebook diplomacy.

The Gaddafi we know – the ‘mad dog’ of Libya, prone to rambling speeches, fancy dress and fits of megalomania, the object of ridicule in ‘Zenga Zenga’ videos on You Tube who takes his tent with him when he travels – was not always like that. On 1 September 1969, when he announced the overthrow of King Idris, Gaddafi was a handsome 27-year-old army officer who hoped to reverse the humiliation of the Arab defeat at the hands of Israel in 1967. But he was also a member of a minor tribe that had settled in the Tripolitanian town of Sirte – where most of the key officers in the Libyan army still come from – and his politics were primarily regional.

It took eight years for him to turn Libya into a Jamahiriya, or republic of the masses, and another two to publish the Green Book, his semi-literate philosophy of governance. It was not until 1989 that he relinquished his own position in government and anointed himself, simply, as the revolution’s Guide. Each of these steps was accompanied by changes in Libya’s political system designed to alter the relationship between citizens and the central authority, to deflect criticism of Gaddafi himself by making it easy to blame underlings for their poor implementation of his ideas. He has made it a feature of his reign to deliver long speeches criticising the structures he himself set up and the men he appointed to run them, always with the ultimate aim of concentrating real power in his family, his tribe and a few trusted individuals. In The Libyan Paradox, Luis Martinez speaks of four eras: in the first, from 1969 to 1973, control is held by the Revolutionary Command Council and a single party modelled on Egypt’s Arab Socialist Union; the second, from 1973 to 1977, sees the introduction of the Popular Committees, a disastrous attempt at decentralisation and ‘people’s power’; the third, from 1977 to 1992, witnessed the introduction of the Revolutionary Committees, the despised militia-cum-vanguard modelled on the Chinese Red Guards, tasked with the ‘absolute revolutionary supervision of people’s power’ and a foreign policy based on the support of international terrorism; the fourth covers the sanctions era and Libya’s rehabilitation in the West, when Gaddafi’s revolution ran out of steam and his regime shrank largely to its tribal base.

The uprising that began in February was unexpected, but so were the other Arab rebellions, even though there had been indications that a rough patch lay ahead as the question of who would succeed the elderly rulers loomed. These succession crises were only part of the picture, however. Mubarak and Ben-Ali were plainly corrupt; in Libya, Gaddafi’s sons controlled vast chunks of the economy. All three countries were mafia states. Over the last decade, the Libyan regime had held the country together through a combination of sticks and carrots: on the one hand, repression; on the other, the promise of rising oil and gas income as international oil companies returned after the lifting of sanctions and invested in new fields Libya did not possess the technology to tap, as well as the façade of a reform process whereby Saif Gaddafi, the Guide’s second son, promised partial liberalisation in return for an acceptance that he would inherit power. What was in effect being promised was a Libyan adaptation of the market-friendly, pro-Western dynastic authoritarianism evident until now in Egypt and Tunisia. In the end, what undid Gaddafi’s revolution was a wider pan-Arab revolution with which young Arabs across the region instantly identified. This is why diplomatic attempts to guarantee the succession for Saif, as advocated by the African Union and Curt Weldon, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who conducted ‘private diplomacy’ financed by oil lobbyists, have been rejected out of hand by the rebels.

Throughout his 42-year reign, Gaddafi used Libya as a test-case for his ideal of statelessness, based on a mishmash of Marxist ideology, his own peculiar distillation of Islamic history and idealised bedouin values (egalitarianism, self-reliance). Despite his tribal background, there is now, thanks to him, a greater sense of a united Libya than ever existed before. What brought this about was the redistribution of oil income, which in the 1970s and 1980s dramatically increased the living standards of Libyans and made them more dependent on the state, particularly after Gaddafi banned private businesses for more than a decade, a measure that led to the exile of the country’s entrepreneurs and created a deep well of resentment, notably in Benghazi’s merchant class, now strong supporters of the uprising. The growing urbanisation of the country has resulted in the slow decline of tribal and regional identity, while standardised education and globalisation have made the old debate about whether Libya should exist at all obsolete. And yet, as Vandewalle’s history shows, Gaddafi’s fixation on statelessness and the haphazard administration of the country means that state-building has been ‘lopsided and incomplete’.

The question that must now be asked is whether there will be enough centripetal force to keep Libya together. Today, the rebels protest that they have no intention of dividing the country and insist that tribal and provincial considerations are largely irrelevant. But the reality is that their movement is mostly a Cyrenaican one, and that recruitment has taken place largely through tribal affiliation. Beyond a rejection of the Gaddafi regime, the Transitional National Council has given little indication of what its version of a post-Gaddafi Libya might look like. For his part, Gaddafi has rallied loyal tribes around him, and now relies on them for support more publicly than ever. With time, the historical Tripolitanian-Cyrenaican divide could gain new permanence.

15 April