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Italian Cyrenaica

Together with Tripoli, Cyrenaica was annexed to Italy in November 1911 and formed into one province (August 1915), bounded on the west by Tunis and Algeria, on the east by Egypt and on the south and southeast by the Sahara. The estimated area is about 400,000 square miles and the population about 1,000,000, mostly Berbers and Jews. The province consists of Tripolitania (capital Tripoli; pop. 73,000) and Cyrenaica (capital Bengazi; pop. 35,000). Through these cities practically all of the trade passed. The chief exports are esparto fibre, skins and hides, ostrich feathers and sponges. Each district had its governor, appointed by the king on the nomination of the Minister of Colonies in accord with the Minister of War. These governors held the rank of lieutenant-generals.

Italy's occupation of the North Eastern Coast of Africa, so called Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, opened up again that Oriental question which has been for centuries the unsolved problem of diplomacy, which has been also the field of the most terrible wars, massacres and exterminations that history could register in its fatal books. The claims of Italy to the possession of Tripoli and Cyrenaica are the same as those of France to the possession of her African Colonies, and perhaps, in addition Italy had the ancient rights which come to the heirs of the Roman conquest, to the more recent rights of the Genovese and the Venitian Republics.

While continuing hostilities against the French, the Senussi sheikh Sayed (Sidi) Ahmad esh Sherif in 1911 aided the Turks in Cyrenaica, then commanded by Enver Bey (later Pasha) in the campaign against Italy. The traditional policy of the Senussites was one of suspicion in regard to the Turks but they had been won over by Pan-Islamic propaganda. By the Treaty of Lausanne, Oct. 1912, the Turks agreed to evacuate Tripoli and Cyrenaica. At that time the Italians held only the chief seaports of Cyrenaica, the rest of the country being in the military occupation of the Senussites and their allies. Sidi Ahmad continued the war with Italy, aided by a body of Turkish troops, which, contrary to treaty engagements, remained in Cyrenaica. The Italians devoted their attention to the occupation of the hinterland of Tripoli (including Fezzan), a process completed in Aug. 1914. In Cyrenaica they remained mainly on the defensive. General Ameglio, appointed governor of Cyrenaica towards the end of 1913, had however begun a vigorous campaign against the Senussites, when in Feb. 1914, in consequence of the threatening situation in the Balkans, orders were issued from Rome to suspend operations.

In 1920 an accord was reached between Italy and the Sanusi leaders that confirmed Idris as amir of Cyrenaica and recognized his virtual independence in an immense area in the interior that encompassed all the principal oases. Italy provided a subsidy to the amir's government, and Sanusi shaykhs, holding seats in the Cyrenaican parliament, participated in the government of the entire province. Idris was also allowed to retain the Sanusi army, although its units were to be stationed in "mixed camps" with Italian forces. By this arrangement, the Italian government officially accepted Idris as both secular and religious leader of the Cyrenaican tribes, but in effect it did not extend his political power beyond what he already exercised as head of the Sanusi order.

Tripolitanian nationalists met with the Sanusis at Surt early in 1922 and offered to accept Idris as amir of Tripolitania. Idris had never sought any title other than the one he held in Cyrenaica, and he was not anxious to extend either his political influence or his religious leadership to northern Tripolitania, where neither he nor the Sanusi order was widely popular. For whatever reason--perhaps to further the cause of total independence or perhaps out of a sense of religious obligation to resist the infidel--Idris accepted the amirate of all Libya in November 1922 and then, to avoid capture by the Italians, fled to Egypt. The second Italo-Sanusi war commenced early in 1923 with the Italian occupation of Sanusi territory in the Benghazi area. Resistance in Cyrenaica was fierce from the outset, but northern Tripolitania was subdued in 1923, and its southern region and Fezzan were gradually pacified over the next several years. During the whole period, however, the principal Italian theater of operations was Cyrenaica.

When Italy entered the war on the side of Germany on June 10, 1940, the Cyrenaican leaders, who for some months had been in contact with British military officers in Egypt, immediately declared their support for the Allies. In Tripolitania, where Italian control was strongest, some opinion initially opposed cooperation with Britain on the ground that if the Allies lost-- which seemed highly possible in 1940--retribution would be severe. But the Cyrenaicans, with their long history of resistance to the Italians, were anxious to resume the conflict and reminded the timid Tripolitanians that conditions in the country could be no worse than they already were.

Idris presided over a meeting of Libyan leaders hastily summoned to Cairo in August 1940, at which formal arrangements for cooperation with British military authorities were initiated. Delegates to the conference expressed full confidence in Idris in a resolution and granted him extensive powers to negotiate with the British for Libya's independence. The resolution stated further that Libyan participation with British forces should be "under the banner of the Sanusi Amirate" and that a "provisional Sanusi government" should be established.

British officials maintained that major postwar agreements or guarantees could not be undertaken while the war was still in progress. Although he endeavored from time to time to secure a more favorable British commitment, Idris generally accepted this position and counseled his followers to have patience. Clearly, many of them were not enthusiastic about Libyan unity and would have been satisfied with the promise of a Sanusi government in Cyrenaica. After the August 1940 resolution, five Libyan battalions were organized by the British, recruited largely from Cyrenaican veterans of the Italo-Sanusi wars. The Libyan Arab Force, better known as the Sanusi Army, served with distinction under British command through the campaigns of the desert war that ended in the liberation of Cyrenaica.

In a speech in the House of Commons in January 1942, British Foreign Minister Anthony Eden acknowledged and welcomed "the contribution which Sayid Idris as Sanusi and his followers have made and are making" to the Allied war effort. He added that the British government was determined that the Sanusis in Cyrenaica should "in no circumstances again fall under Italian domination." No further commitment was made, and this statement, which made no mention of an independent Libya, remained the official British position during the war.

North Africa was a major theater of operations in World War II, and the war shifted three times across the face of Cyrenaica, a region described by one German general as a "tactician's paradise and a quartermaster's hell" because there were no natural defense positions between Al Agheila and Al Alamein to obstruct the tanks that fought fluid battles in the desert like warships at sea, and there was only one major highway on the coast along which to supply the quick-moving armies. The liberation of Cyrenaica was completed for the second time in November 1942. Tripoli fell to the British in January 1943, and by mid-February the last Axis troops had been driven from Libya.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 02:53:27 ZULU