The idea that there is a nation called “Libya” is the central problem with our understanding of what is going on in that fake “country,” the flaw in our projections of what will or ought to happen.
The country known today as Libya has only existed since the end of World War II, and was the product of a shotgun marriage of the three “provinces”: Tripolitania, in the West, Cyrenaica, in the East, and Fezzan in the South. “Libya” was created, first, by the Italians in 1933, who sought to incorporate the three distinct areas into a unified colony, under a single Fascist proconsul. After the defeat of the Axis powers, the British took control and installed an “emir” in Cyrenaica. Writing in the New York Daily News recently, Diedreick Vandewalle, a professor of government at Dartmouth, gives us some historical perspective:
“History has not been kind to this nation. Its three provinces — Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fazzan — were united for strategic purposes by the Great Powers after World War II. Cyrenaica in the east, and Tripolitania in the west, the two most important provinces, shared no common history and were suspicious of each other.
“The monarch, King Idris al-Sanusi, the heir to a Sufi Islamic movement that had its headquarters in Cyrenaica, kept complaining to the U.S. ambassador that he wanted to rule only as Amir of Cyrenaica, not as King of Libya.”
The kindness of history is found lacking, by Vandewalle, because, as he complains later on in his piece,
“In many ways, Libya remains the tribal society it was in 1951, when the country became independent. As a political concept, Libya for many of its citizens remains limited to tribe, family or province: The notion of a unified system of political checks and balances remains terra incognita.
“The danger for future governments is that they could easily continue this hands-off government, remaining little more than a conduit for the country’s vast natural resources. The real challenge for Libya will not only be reconstruction — but the creation, for the first time since 1951, of a true state with a shared national identity.”
Has Gadhafi’s long reign of terror really been an episode of “hands-off government”? Although, in theory, Gadhafi has several times proclaimed the abolition of the Libyan government, with power supposedly devolving to the local “revolutionary committees,” in reality – as we can see with our own eyes – anyone who who challenges the Gadhafi dictatorship is flirting with their own mortality.
Gadhafi and the mid-level officers who led the coup against King Idris in 1967 were modernizers who emulated the Western model of a super-centralized unitary state. That Gadhafi had to mask this centralism under the rubric of his Jamahiriya variant of socialism – which claims that Libya is a direct democracy, where power is vested in local “Basic People’s Congresses” – merely underscores the difficulty of imposing any sort of central government in a society that naturally resists it.
This is the “factual” basis of the daffy dictator’s seemingly crazy argument that he can’t step down from office, since he doesn’t hold any in the (officially nonexistent) Libyan state.
In order to maintain his rule, Gadhafi had to set up a system that limned the already existing state of affairs, which Professor Vandewalle bemoans as “the tribal society it was in 1951.” The ideological fiction of Jamahiriya, however, has been abruptly unmasked by the dictator’s brutal response to the Benghazi-based rebellion. I’m surprised he hasn’t already styled himself as the Libyan equivalent of Abraham Lincoln, the heroic leader who will stop at nothing to save the sacred unitary state.
Western intellectuals and politicians bring their cultural bias in favor of cosmopolitanism to bear on a region that has always lived in another way altogether: Vandewalle enthuses over the idea that Libya may some day see the emergence of “a true state” and enter a state of grace by achieving “a shared national identity” – but why should Libyans want any such thing?
After all, their experience with the unitary state – from the idiocies of the Green Book, to the decrees of colonial administrators – has been entirely negative. The only periods of relative peace, prosperity, and stability have been when the peoples of the region are allowed to revert to local “tribal” allegiances.
A fine network of social and religious associations and loyalties – inextricably linked to the two pillars of society in the region, which are family and faith – has always existed beneath the thin veneer of Gadhafi’s state apparatus. As the façade falls away, the underlying structures stand revealed.
The Benghazi rebellion is essentially a secessionist movement, which seeks to break Cyrenaica away from what used to be the entirely separate and distinct state of Tripolitania – now the seat of the central government and Gadhafi’s chief stronghold. Cyrenaica has a long history as an independent and quasi-independent entity, which goes back to the time of the ancient Greeks, and continued into modern times. That history is now reasserting itself. Cyrenaica was the center of resistance to the Italians. It is also the center of the Sanussi sect’s influence – a version of Islam, founded in 1837. The Sanussi, based in the Bedouin tribes of the East, have always been the most troublesome for would-be colonizers and empire-builders: they resisted the rule of the Italians just as they fought the Ottomans – and are now fighting Gadhafi.
King Idris I, who took the throne after World War II, descended from the original Sanussi emir – and, it turns out, he was right in his reluctance to extend his rule to Tripoli. If the Western powers, hiding behind the UN, had taken the King’s advice and allowed Cyrenaica to go its own way, the present tragedy might have been averted. As it is, the rebellion against Gadhafi has turned into a stalemate, with the Eastern part effectively liberated from the eccentric despot’s control.
This is no doubt unacceptable to the Western powers, which want a single state to deal with and exploit, and it is doubly unacceptable to the Arab League, because it opens up a whole new can of worms, throwing into question the borders of states created in the wake of the Ottoman collapse. If Cyrenaica can secede from Tripoli, then why can’t the Kurds secede from Iraq – and the Shi’ites of the Saudi Kingdom’s Eastern province rid themselves of their Sunni overlords?
In any case, the fiction of “Libya” is falling by the wayside. What will succeed it remains an open question. However, Western intervention, if and when it occurs, cannot bring stability to a “nation” that never really existed in the first place.
The great Arab Awakening now sweeping North Africa and the Middle East is not only bringing down the old order of Western-supported dynasties, and tinpot dictators of Gadhafi’s ilk – it is also erasing arbitrary borders drawn by Western colonizers and Ottoman caliphs, and redrawing them to reflect underlying realities more accurately. Any attempt by the West to intervene, and favor one outcome over another, is bound to draw the ire of indigenous peoples – and redirect their anger away from local despots, and towards us.
That is why it’s in our interests to stand aside and let the upsurge play out, without aiding the rebellion in Cyrenaica or standing in its way. Let the recent arrest and expulsion of a British “diplomatic” delegation, which landed in the Eastern region in the dead of night, serve as a lesson and a warning to the West. The sign clearly says: “No Trespassing.” We defy it at our peril.