What future for Libya?

Colonel Gaddafi (picture Antônio Milena/Agência Brasil)

By John Parry

Civil wars can be the most vicious form of conflict as recent events in Libya have demonstrated. The Benghazi-based rebels’ swift victory, achieved with Nato air support, resulted in the capture and assassination of Colonel Gaddafi while also destroying much of the country’s vital infrastructure particularly in the north-west region of Tripolitania and although services such as electricity, food supplies and medical care can be restored and housing rebuilt, agreeing new social, administrative and political structures will be a much bigger problem.

The National Transitional Council promised ‘to supervise the election of a founding assembly charged with developing a new constitution…..(based on) ‘respect for human rights, guarantee of civil liberties, separation of powers, an independent judiciary and the establishment of national institutions that provide for broad and pluralistic participation, peaceful transition of authority and the right of representation for every segment of society.’ This draft constitution is then to be ‘submitted to public referendum’. It is too early, particularly for outside observers, to predict whether the resulting proposals will lead to a unitary state or, alternatively, to a looser federation based perhaps on the country’s traditional three main regions—Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan–but a brief glance into the past might provide a useful background.

In land area Libya is one of the largest African states but much of it is desert and it therefore has a comparatively small population, the majority living in the fertile northen strip bordering the Mediterranean. It was here, in earlier ages, that trans-Saharan trade in gold, precious stones and other products led to the foundation of Mediterranean trading posts such as the Greek city of Berenice (Benghazi) and the three Roman cities of Lepcis, Oea  and Sabratha from which modern Tripoli (Tripolis) takes its name. It was in fact Greek traders who first used the name Libya though at the time it referred only to the Benghazi area (Cyrenaica) plus the nearby desert.

Historically Libya’s development took place without, or in spite of, any European contact. In the 7th century—that is, during Europe’s ‘dark ages’—came the arrival of Islam and the Arabs who spread  across the Mahgreb [itself an Arabic word meaning ‘west’], settling and eventually making many converts among the local Berbers and others. This Arab/Islamic migration also brought education with it, leading to wider literacy and an impressive level of scholarship. By the 12th century their medical knowledge was so far in advance of anything achieved in Europe that Constantius Africanus added the teaching of Arab medicine to the Salerno medical school’s syllabus [i]. North African Arabs were also keen travellers and wrote learned accounts of the lands they visited. Ibn Battuta, one of the most famous of these scholars, was of Berber stock [ii]

But history is never static. In 1510 Spain occupied Tripoli, prompting the Ottoman Turks to intervene [iii].  Politically it was but one more incident in the ongoing conflict between the Islamic and Christian worlds but it led to Libya’s incorporation into the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile trans-Saharan trade also continued. From Kufra in the south to Benghazi and Tripoli in the north caravans arrived with gold, guns, leather, ostrich feathers and even slaves for the Turkish market. These caravans had to pay ‘tributes’ (taxes) as they passed through each tribe’s territories–a taxation system which, when extended to ships at sea by the so-called Barbary (Berber) pirates, led to the newly-formed USA’s first foreign war: against Tripoli! [iv]

By the 19th century, with the industrial revolution in Europe creating a need for new markets and new sources of raw materials, European ships were already visiting other parts of Africa and Asia. What started as trade soon developed into the illusion that every self-respecting European country needed an overseas empire if only to gain international status. For Britain, France, the Netherlands, and eventually Germany and Italy this became the age of colonialism. In 1869 the Suez Canal opened to traffic, offering a direct trade route to East Africa, India and the orient. This focussed the attention particularly of Britain and France on the need for stability in the Mediterranean which the slowly crumbling Ottoman Empire could no longer secure. When therefore the main European powers met at the Congress of Berlin in 1878 to agree each European country’s “sphere of influence” in Africa—in effect to carve up Africa between themselves–the southern Mediterranean coast, though not on the agenda, was certainly on their minds.

Britain, which already held Gibraltar and Malta, had bought the Suez Canal from the French in 1875 and was now negotiating to occupy Cyprus while France took over Tunisia as a protectorate in 1879. Privately they both let it be known that they would raise no objection to Italy taking possession of Tripolitania. The European powers were in effect establishing the political borders which remained largely unchanged throughout the colonial period and are identical (with very few adjustments) to those of the independent African states today.

In due course the Italians began to prepare their invasion of Libya by establishing a few ‘facts on the ground’ such as buying land and promoting local economic enterprises, some sponsored by the Banco di Roma, yet when they finally launched their large-scale military invasion in 1911 they met with resistance not only from the Turkish ‘occupiers’ but also from the powerful Sanussi order of Cyrenaica. The Turks had long accepted that the Sanussi tribesmen of Cyrenaica ‘formed a religiously and culturally homogeneous community’ and had therefore administered them separately.  This continued under the Italians though it did not prevent them bringing in settlers to help develop agriculture and opening schools with the aim of promoting the use of the Italian language in their new province.

Yet despite the success of Italy’s economic infiltration and eventual take-over of Libya, officially absorbing the province into the Italian state, these new colonial masters did not succeed in winning over the Libyan people whose primary loyalty remained foccussed on their own tribes and the wider Muslim community. Nor did the concept of a modern state with established borders seem realistic in the desert where inter-tribal confederations, unacknowledged by the colonial authorities, traversed the Franco-Italian divide without even noticing it was there. As for the claim that a town, village or oasis could ‘belong’ exclusively to one or other side of the divide—well, maybe, but only in the minds of French and Italian colonial officials [v].

At the same time opposition to the Italian occupation was increasing. Operating in small groups with each tribe forming its own guerrilla band [vi] they were able to launch numerous small-scale surprise attacks against the enemy while avoiding full-scale battles. The Sanussi, always ready to defend themselves against intrusion, were among the most active. Led by the legendary ‘Umar al-Muktar their attacks were so effective that the Italian commander, General Graziani, herded some 80,000 of Cyrenaica’s civilian population into concentration camps at Sirte and cut off their food supplies from Egypt by ordering the construction of a 300km barbed wire fence.

Italy’s Fascist government’s aim was to ‘build a great nation worthy of being the heir of ancient Rome’ by launching a program of colonisation with cash subsidies for would-be immigrants  who, by the outbreak of World War II in 1939, already made up 12 per cent of Libya’s total population. Then, with the fall of France in 1940, the battle between fascism and the democracies spread to North Africa where, after bitter fighting, the Italian and German forces were defeated and a British military government was installed in Libya.

But what was to be Libya’s future? It was one of the world’s poorest countries. Its limited exports relied in part on salvaging scrap metal from the battlefields. At a meeting of the newly established United Nations Organisation the British and Italian foreign ministers suggested a joint trusteeship for the whole area with Britain taking responsibility for Cyrenaica, Italy for Tripolotania, and France for Fezzan. This was defeated in the General Assembly but in its place a resolution for the independence of a united Libya was adopted in November 1949. A United Nations commissioner was appointed to help the Libyan advisory council to draw up their new constitution. It was not an easy task. The population was mostly uneducated. Tribal sheikhs and other local leaders were not comfortable with the idea of universal suffrage, fearing it would undermine their authority, and the two smaller regions were worried that Tripolitania with its much larger population might become too powerful.

A compromise produced a two-chamber legislature with an Assembly consisting of one deputy for every 20,000 males plus an unelected Senate and a King with powers closer to those of a medieval overlord than of a constitutional monarch. Independence followed in December 1951 with the aged Idris al Sanussi as its King though relying financially and for security on Britain and the United States, both countries having military air bases in Libya.

But a new spirit was abroad in the world during those postwar years. The founding of the United Nations Organisation with its emphasis on human rights and democracy was of course its first manifestation. But this new spirit also led to the break-up of old empires, the independence of  Indonesia, India and Pakistan among others. It reached Egypt with the abolition of the monarchy and Colonel Nasser’s nationalisation of the British-owned Suez Canal in 1956, a move later to be much admired by a group of trainee army officers in Libya who resented what they saw as their own country’s subordination to Britain and America.

Already in 1959, Libya’s economy had begun slowly to improve with the discovery of oil in the Sirte basin. More schools were opened though the shortage of teachers meant that many had to be recruited from among Palestinian refugees and from Egypt. Their classes were crowded and the consequent rise in literacy raised Libyan awareness of events elsewhere in the Arab world [vii].

King Idris now began to introduce his own constitutional reforms, dividing the provinces into smaller political units, centralising power in his own hands, and effectively demolishing the country’s federal structure. In the eyes of that group of young army officers, among whom was Muammar al-Gaddafi—himself born into a Bedouin family and a true son of the desert– it was time to modernise the Libyan political structure with its tribal divisions and medieval monarchy. Impressed by Colonel Nasser in Egypt they set up a Revolutionary Command Council and waited for the right moment to strike.

It came in 1969 while King Idris was on holiday in Turkey. In a bloodless coup d’état they took over the administration and appointed a new cabinet with Gaddafi as prime minister and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. [viii] Domestically the change seemed beneficial. New schools were built, health centres (mostly staffed by Egyptian doctors) appeared even in the villages, and residents of the many shanty towns were rehoused in newly constructed two or three storey apartment houses. In the streets people seemed noticeably more self-confident.

After his experience of the previous regime Gaddafi had become critical of the parliamentary form of representative democracy. His argument was that ‘dividing the population into constituencies means that one member of parliament represents thousands. . . .  (and) the masses therefore are completely isolated from the representative and he, in turn, is totally separated  from them.’ He therefore introduced a new form of ‘direct democracy’ based on locally elected committees and congresses. This he called the Third Universal Theory and presented it to the public in his short and pocket-sized Green Book. Later he went farther, proclaiming Libya to be ‘The Libyan Arab Popular and Socialist Jamahiryya [i.e. ‘Peoples’ State] and establishing Revolutionary Committees of Gaddafi loyalists. [ix]

However eccentric some of these ideas may seem the experience gained by those who served on such committees could prove useful in post-Gaddafi Libya. With its regional differences some form of federal structure would seem the logical way forward and it is not too ridiculous to claim that, without realising it, the Gaddafi revolution has prepared the ground for a less doctrinaire but more effective Libyan Federation.

Yet federation or not, from Tripoli to Murzuq, from Kufra to Benghazi, the desert remains the only true reality. With the fall of Gaddafi many of the African soldiers he had recruited for his army have now fled home to Niger taking with them their modern rifles, ammunition and even artillery. According to recent reports most have joined the Islamic jihad, a disciplined force whose activities spread across the Sahara’s invisible borders and remain a threat to security in the region.


[i]  Friedrich Heer: The Medieval World

[ii]  E.W.Bovill:The Golden Trade of the Moors,  p.62

[iii]  Jamil M. Abun-Nasr: A History of the Mahgrib in the Isalmic Period

[iv] Ali Abdullatif Ahmida: The Making of Modern Libya, p.23

[v]Ahmida:op.cit, p.12

[vi]  Abun-Nasr op.cit p.399

[vii]  Abun-Nasr p.413

[viii] See Jonathan Bearman, Gaddafi’s Libya, chaps. 3-4

[ix]  Ahmida op.cit. p.158

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