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Libya - Regional Politics

Inspired by the recent ouster of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, opponents of Gaddafi demanded an end to his 42-year rule. But the civil war in Libya was fundamentally different from the revolts in other countries, reflecting the fundamental geographical distinction between eastern Cyrenaica, which was liberated from Gaddafi's rule, and western Tripolitania, which remained largely loyal to the regime. Although Cyrenaica and Tripolitania had been united into Libya at independence in 1951, for the previous three thousand years these two territories had persisted as seperate and distinct entities. Decades of Liya had not overcome the differences of millennia, and a territorialy based civil war was the natural product of these distinctions.

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. In Tripolitania, by contrast, loyalty that in a social context was reserved largely to the family and kinship group could be transferred more easily to a political party and its leader.

For more than 400 years, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were prosperous Roman provinces and part of a cosmopolitan state whose citizens shared a common language, legal system, and Roman identity. Roman ruins like those of Leptis Magna, extant in present-day Libya, attest to the vitality of the region, where populous cities and even smaller towns enjoyed the amenities of urban life -- the forum, markets, public entertainments, and baths-- found in every corner of the Roman Empire. Merchants and artisans from many parts of the Roman world established themselves in North Africa, but the character of the cities of Tripolitania remained decidedly Punic and, in Cyrenaica, Greek. Tripolitania was a major exporter of olive oil, as well as being the entrepôt for the gold and slaves conveyed to the coast by the Garamentes, while Cyrenaica remained an important source of wines, drugs, and horses. With the definitive partition of the empire in 395, the Cyrenaica was assigned to the eastern empire; Tripolitania was attached to the western empire.

By the beginning of the second century, Christianity had been introduced among the Jewish community, and it soon gained converts in the towns and among slaves. Rome's African provinces were thoroughly Christianized by the end of the fourth century, and inroads had been made as well among the Berber tribes in the hinterland. From an early date, however, the churches in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica developed distinct characteristics that reflected their differing cultural orientations. The former came under the jurisdiction of the Latin patriarch, the bishop of Rome, and the latter under that of the Coptic (Egyptian) patriarch of Alexandria. In both areas, religious dissent became a vehicle for social revolt at a time of political deterioration and economic depression.

After World War II, the United States suggested a trusteeship for the whole country under control of the United Nations (UN), whose charter had become effective in October 1945, to prepare it for self-government. The Soviet Union proposed separate provincial trusteeships, claiming Tripolitania for itself and assigning Fezzan to France and Cyrenaica to Britain. France, seeing no end to the discussions, advocated the return of the territory to Italy. To break the impasse, Britain finally recommended immediate independence for Libya. Separate British military governments were established in Cyrenaica and in Tripolitania and continued to function until Libya achieved independence. Each was divided into several districts governed by civil affairs officers who reported to brigadiers at senior headquarters in Benghazi and Tripoli.

The new United Kingdom of Libya, which became independent in December 1951, was composed of three provinces - Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and the southern desert area of the Fezzan. The sparse populations of these areas were widely separated from each other by the Sahara (which comprises almost 95 percent of the country), and have accordingly developed strikingly different attitudes and characteristics. There were: (a) 800,000 Tripolitanians who were partially detribalized and sedentary and divided by conflicting urban and rural interests; (b) over 300,000 semi nomadic Cyrenaicans who, on the other hand, were united by tribal bonds and still widespread allegiance to the orthodox Moslem Sanusi religious brotherhood; (c) roughly 50,000 Fezzanese oasis-dwellers and nomads, who had little contact with the coastal regions; and (d) 46,000 Italians settled in Tripolitania, who played a leading role in its economy. The vast majority of the population was illiterate and politically apathetic.

While Tripolitania adhered to the concept of a united kingdom through fear of renewed domination by Italy, the Cyrenaicans were largely separatist in outlook, fearing domination by more populous Tripolitania. After the UN decision of 1949 in favor of a united Libya, Tripolitania reluctantly accepted as monarch the Amir Sayyid Idrisal-Sanusi of Cyrenaica, who was almost equally reluctant to head the new state. Time only widened the breach between the two areas; King Idris I constantly reasserted his preference for Cyrenaica, and the Tripolitanians showed increasing distaste for their "Shepherd Chieftain."

The separateness of the regions is much more than simply geographical and political, for they have evolved largely as different socioeconomic entities--each with a culture, social structure, and values different from the others. Cyrenaica became Arabized at a somewhat earlier date than Tripolitania, and beduin tribes dominated it. The residual strain of the indigenous Berber inhabitants, however, still remains in Tripolitania. Fezzan has remained a kind of North African outback, its oases peopled largely by minority ethnic groups.

The border between Tripolitania and Tunisia is subject to countless crossings by legal and illegal migrants. No natural frontier marks the border, and the ethnic composition, language, value systems, and traditions of the two peoples are nearly identical. The Cyrenaica region is contiguous with Egypt, and here, too, the border is not naturally defined; illegal as well as legal crossings are frequent. In contrast, Fezzan's borders with Algeria, Niger, and Chad are seldom crossed because of the almost total emptiness of the desert countryside. Other factors, too, such as the traditional forms of land tenure, have varied in the different regions. In the 1980s their degrees of separateness was still sufficiently pronounced to represent a significant obstacle to efforts toward achieving a fully unified Libya.

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Page last modified: 25-10-2013 13:39:09 ZULU