The southwestern desert, known as Fezzan, was administered separately during both the Italian regime and the federal period of the Libyan monarchy. In 1969 the revolutionary government officially changed the regional designation of Tripolitania to Western Libya, of Cyrenaica to Eastern Libya, and of Fezzan to Southern Libya; however, the old names were intimately associated with the history of the area, and during the 1970s they continued to be used frequently. Cyrenaica comprises 51 percent, Fezzan 33 percent, and Tripolitania 16 percent of the country's area.
Historically, the administration of Libya had been united for only a few years--and those under Italian rule. Many groups vied for influence over the people but, although all parties desired independence, there was no consensus as to what form of government was to be established. The social basis of political organization varied from region to region. In Cyrenaica and Fezzan, the tribe was the chief focus of social identification, even in an urban context. Idris had wide appeal in the former as head of the Sanusi order, while in the latter the Sayf an Nasr clan commanded a following as paramount tribal chieftains.
Fezzan was less involved with either the Maghrib or the Mashriq. Its nomads traditionally looked for leadership to tribal dynasties that controlled the oases astride the desert trade routes. The inhabitants of Fezzan belong to all the races of North Africa, constituting an essentially mixed population, in which the primitive elements appear to be the fair Berbers and the dark Ethiopians, the oldest occupants of the land. In more recent times the Arabs, especially the Aulad Sliman family from Egypt and Cyrenaica, have also largely contributed to renew or modify the local population. Formerly, when the Barbary corsairs still scoured the Mediterranean waters, a number of Italian captives were regularly introduced into the harems of the Murzuk sheikhs, thus supplying an additional ethnical element possessing a certain relative importance in a region so sparsely peopled.
Among the natives of Fezzan was seen every shade of color, from a deep black to an almost fair complexion. Rohlfs even tells us it frequently happens that, by a phenomenon of which the inhabitants of Spanish America offer many examples, individual members of the family have spotted skins-white on a black, or black on a white ground. The blacks of Fezzan are also often seen with long, sleek hair, while that of the whites is on the contrary short and woolly. On the whole the predominant colour may be said to be that of the yellow Malays, although the hair and features are those rather of the Negro stock.
Throughout its history, Fezzan maintained close relations with sub-Saharan Africa as well as with the coast. A significant number of sub-Saharan Africans live in desert and coastal communities, mixed with Arabs and Berbers. Most of them are descended from former slaves--the last slave caravan is said to have reached Fezzan in 1929--but some immigrated to Tripoli during World War II. In recent years, waves of migrant workers from Mali, Niger, Sudan, and other Sahelian countries have arrived. A majority work as farmers or sharecroppers in Fezzan, but some have migrated to urban centers, where they are occupied in a variety of jobs considered menial.
During World War II, in the lightly populated Fezzan region, a French military administration formed a counterpart to the British operation. With British approval, Free French forces moved north from Chad to take control of the territory in January 1943. French administration was directed by a staff stationed in Sabha, but it was largely exercised through Fezzan notables of the family of Sayf an Nasr. At the lower echelons, French troop commanders acted in both military and civil capacities according to customary French practice in the Algerian Sahara. In the west, Ghat was attached to the French military region of southern Algeria and Ghadamis to the French command of southern Tunisia--giving rise to Libyan nationalist fears that French intentions might include the ultimate detachment of Fezzan from Libya.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|