Muammar Gaddafi

Libya’s Geographical Divisions and the Challenge to National Unity



Libya’s national unity faces challenges beyond those imposed by its tribal background. Countries that contain two distinct core regions of roughly equivalent population are often burdened by regional rivalry, and Libya is no exception. Its bifurcation is stark, with population highly concentrated in two areas located on opposite sides of the country’s Mediterranean coast. The capital city, Tripoli, is situated in the northwest; its counterpart in the northeast, Benghazi, formerly functioned as a kind of secondary capital. According to the Wikipedia, the latter “continues to hold institutions and organizations normally associated with a national capital city.” But as the Gadaffi regime ensconced itself in Tripoli, the eastern core around Benghazi emerged as a center of anti-Gadaffi sentiments. It is no coincidence that the current Libyan rebellion scored its initial successes in the northeast.

This bi-polar demography is rooted in physical geography. One of the driest countries of the world, Libya has few areas capable of supporting agriculture. Apart from a few oases in the Sahara, farming populations were until recently limited to the two relatively small coastal strips that receive more than twelve inches (300 mm) of average annual rainfall: one in the northwest, the other in the northeast. Historically, the two areas remained geopolitically and culturally separate. The disparity was particularly pronounced in ancient times, when the northeast was part of the Greek world while the northwest belonged to the Phoenician realm.

Libya’s unity came about in part through the actions of European colonialism. Historically, the area now known as Libya was regarded as three separate regions: Tripolitania in the northwest, centered on Tripoli; Cyrenaica in the northeast, focused on Benghazi; and Fezzan in the southwest, anchored by a few scattered oases. In the 1700s most of the region was ruled by the Karamanli Dynasty based in Tripoli, nominal vassals of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans regained direct control in the 1830s, continuing to administer the area through Tripoli. Ottoman authority, however, was increasingly challenged by the Senussi order of Sufi Muslims, which was especially strong in the southern oases. Italy expelled the Ottomans from the region during the course of the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-1912, incidentally the first conflict to see the extensive use of aerial bombing. Italy defeated the Ottoman Empire after a little more than a year of fighting, but it took more than a decade to secure the region. Although Tripolitania was subdued within a few years, resistance persisted in Cyrenaica in the northeast and Fezzan in the southwest, organized by local tribes and especially the militant Senussi order. In 1934, after colonial control had been firmly established, Italy merged Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan into a single colony that it called Libya, deriving the name from the ancient Greek term for Africa. When Italy lost control of its North African colony during World War II, Cyrenaica and Tripolitania passed to Britain while France took Fezzan. The three regions were once again stitched together in 1951 with the independence of what was initially called the United Kingdom of Libya.

Following independence, Libya’s internal political geography was reorganized on several occasions, such that the historical regions of Cyrenaica, Fezzan, and Tripolitania ceased to have any administrative significance. Yet they remain distinctive, as highlighted by the current uprising. As mentioned above, Gaddafi’s power evaporated first in Cyrenaica in the northeast. Most northwestern cities subsequently fell to the oppositional forces, with the regime’s power in Tripolitania largely limited by February 28 to the capital city of Tripoli. As the Wikipedia map posted above indicates, the oases of Fezzan also remained at this time firmly under pro-Gaddafi forces. The only other area remaining under the power of the old regime was Sirt, located on the arid central coast between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. Not coincidentally, Sirt is Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown.

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Libya’s Tribal Divisions and the Nation-State


Unlike the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, that of Libya has a strong tribal component. When key tribal leaders rejected his regime, Muammar Gaddafi’spower began to evaporate from large segments of the country.

The phenomenon of tribalism in oil-rich Libya has caused some confusion in the media. A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor began by noting that Libya is “considered one of the most tribal nations in the Arab world,” yet went on to assert that “Qaddafi’s greatest and most lasting accomplishment may prove to be stripping [the tribes] of their political power as modernization also diluted their importance.” Only the “current chaos,” the article contends, has allowed tribes to “reassert their importance.” Most reports, by contrast, maintain that Gaddafi sought to manipulate rather than eliminate the country’s tribal structure, bolstering his own power by dividing military command, for example, along clan lines. Yet the consequences of such tribalized power structures for the country’s national government can be perplexing. A recent article attributed to the New York Times portrays them in stark terms: “Under Gaddafi’s four decades of rule, Libya has become a singular quasi-nation, where the official rhetoric disdains the idea of a nation-state, [and] tribal bonds remain primary even within the ranks of the military…” Yet the original Times article, as posted on its website, pulls back from such a blunt assessment, blandly contending only that “under Colonel Qaddafi’s idiosyncratic rule, tribal bonds remain primary even within the ranks of the military.”

Such confusion derives largely from the expectations generated by socio-political theory. Political modernization is supposed to dismantle traditional social features like tribal power structures, replacing them with the systematic administration of the bureaucratic state. Tribes thrive where state power is weak or non-existent, allowing a measure of security in an anarchic environment. By this logic, Libya, with its vast oil wealth, has undertaken a path of state-led modernization that should have undermined the country’s tribes. And to regard Libya as anything less than a nation-state would risk throwing our entire geopolitical world model into question, as all countries are habitually regarded as nation-states, political entities in which primary allegiance is given to the nation as a whole rather than to subsidiary aggregations such as tribes, ethnic groups, or regional communities. Tribal affiliation, by such thinking, is a vanishing feature of a by-gone world.

But despite countless assertions of Libya’s nation-statehood, its political structures have never matched the model. Far from attempting to replicate the forms of the European nation-state, Gadaffi has sought to build a different kind of government, as reflected in his country’s official name: the “Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.” “Jamahiriya,” a term Gadaffi coined himself, is usually translated along the lines of “state of the masses” or “direct democracy.” According to official propaganda, the Libyan political model seeks to transcend not so much the national side of the nation-state model but rather the state itself. Jamahiriya, we are told, is based on “[the] rejection of the notion that the people need the structure of the state in order to regulate their lives. … [T]here is no need for a superfluous state structure which, however well monitored by the people, may threaten the revolutionary achievement of direct democracy….” Such a form of government, Gaddafi has insisted, is fitting for the entire world. As a result, Libya’s official ideology has been deemed the “Third Universal Theory.”

“Direct democracy” in Libya, as elsewhere, has promised much more than it has delivered. In practice, it has entailed autocratic rule, nepotism, and massive levels of corruption, much to the fury of the Libyan people. But by disparaging the normal structures of national government, the Libyan experiment has also left a vacuum of political organization—one that has been partially filled by the tribal groups. It is in this backhanded way that Jamahiriya has reinforced the tribal element in Libyan politics.

Because tribal groups in the greater Middle East have generally been regarded as anachronistic remnants destined to die out, they have rarely been mapped, and almost never in any detail. The 1974 CIA map of ethnic groups of Libya posted above in unusual in that it does show “selected tribes,” but its selective nature reduces its utility. Most of the country’s tribes are not depicted, including the largest, Warfalla, with an estimated one million members. As the continuing importance of tribal politics in the greater Middle East has been demonstrated not just by the upheaval in Libya but much more powerfully by experiences of the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan, cartographic attention to this aspect of political organization is clearly in order. Thanks to M. Izady and Columbia University’s Gulf 2000 Project, comprehensive mapping of tribal groups in Afghanistan has now been carried out. Further efforts, one can hope, will be forthcoming.

* Many thanks to Shine Zaw-Aung for pointing out the discrepancies between the article on the New York Times website and the same article as reprinted in other newspapers.

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