Will the uprising in Libya be “just like” Egypt and Tunisia? That is, popular youth uprisings with strong (perhaps critical) backing of the labor movement? Wide-scale opposition to a brutal regime backed only by a crust of the military?
This seems unlikely as Libya is a nation not at all like Egypt, nor Tunisia. Muslim, yes, but very diverse with myriad competing tribes, ethnicities, and dialects – each played against each other by every ruler since the nation was formed. Perhaps Libya is more like Iraq in its ethnic regions or like Yemen in its tribes than like Egypt or Tunisia. In no way is it a united modern nation-state. And therefore both the opposition to, and supporters of, Gaddafi take on a mottled, complex hue. Not surprisingly, these complexities could even push the uprising into a trajectory wholly different than the others – even into an internecine and degenerative one.
A thousand years of history weigh on Libya today. One-hundred forty tribes stretch across three formerly separate kingdoms of what is now Libya. First controlled separately by the Ottoman empire, the three were merged into a state by Italian colonialists only in the 1950s. For over a millenium, the three kingdoms, Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan, were separated by desert and had little in common. The ethnic divides were between Arabs, Arab-Berbers, Berbers and Tuareg cultures and their many tribes. When finally merged into modern Libya, the Cyrenaica kingdom, the eastern-most region led by King Idris, won control, leaving the other regions in the cold. He instituted the neocolonial Kingdom of Libya in the 1950s, to the advantage of Cyrenaican tribes – the Zuwayya and others, which are today revolting.
Perhaps this could explain some of the strange images arising from the current ‘democratic’ revolt:
“Opposition demonstrators to Colonel Gadaffi used the old tricolour flag of the monarchy and some carried portraits of the king.”
King Idris, who was overthrown by Qaddafi in 1969, had banned all political parties, signed 20-year leases for American and British military bases, constantly reshuffled administrative regions to destabilize tribal challenges, and was generally considered a puppet of British and American oil companies.
The Free Officers Movement in 1969, of course, overthrew not only the King, but the control of Libya by the Cyrenaican tribes in the east of the country. Qaddafi rose to leadership, replacing previous tribes with his own small Gadhadhfa tribe from central Libya, and the larger Warfalla and Maqariha tribes, originally from the southwest. These three tribes have held key positions in Qaddafi’s armed forces, police and intelligence services.
However, as is common in tribal societies, allegiances come and go. Qaddafi, like King Idris before him, tried to rule by supporting, then undercutting various tribes over time. Leaders of an attempted coup by members of the 1-million-member Warfalah tribe was purged by Qaddafi in 1996, and the tribe denounced him. When the revolt broke out this year, the head of the Warfalah defected to the opposition, leaving only Qaddafi’s tribe and the Maqariha tribe (which dominates Fezzan and some parts of Tripolitania) supporting the government. The areas dominated by these tribes are currently steadfastly supporting Qaddafi, including the city of Sirte, Qaddafi’s birthplace. Sirte has repeatedly stopped today’s rebel forces attempting to pass it on their march from Cyrenaica to Tripoli.
Again, there is no love lost between feuding tribes in Libya: today’s rebel leader Colonel Tarek Saad Hussein from Cyrenaica said he would “finish” the people of Sirte (mostly the Gadhadhfa tribe) if they opposed the rebels:
“I want to deliver a message to the people of Sirte: You are with us or against us. Because when we move to Tripoli, you either join us, or we will finish you.”
Is today’s battle for national liberation or for tribal domination? Both are in evidence, but only one can succeed.
“[The domination by the tribes] led some to worry that the seizure of the eastern third of Libya last week would lead to the creation of a secessionist state with Benghazi as its capital. This wouldn’t be surprising: Until the 1930s, the three major Libyan provinces of Tripolitania in the northwest, Fezzan in the southwest and Cyrenaica in the east were independent kingdoms, and Cyrenaica has always had a distinct culture and politics.
But is there no homogeneous democratic opposition to Qaddafi? While there may be some strong unifying currents, there are still widely differing motivations for opposing Qaddafi.
Firstly, there are many unemployed and disaffected workers and youth who have seen none of the benefits from the newly privatized oil wealth or billions of foreign investment. ConocoPhillips, the third-largest U.S. oil company, holds a 16.3 percent interest in the Waha concessions; Marathon Group has a 16 percent in operations in the Sirte Basin; the list goes on… Hess, Occidental, BP, Shell, Standard Chartered. But vast sections of the working class, especially youth, have been shut out and have watched others enrich themselves.
But there are other motives: the families of Islamists sympathizers, 1200 of whom were massacred by Qaddafi’s men in a prison riot in 1996. There are thousands of Libyan army officers, who after two decades of defunding by Qaddafi, quickly jumped ship to the opposition, hoping for a better future. There are leaders of former coup attempts. There is Libyan opposition leader Ibrahim Sahad of the CIA-funded National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL) who gives interviews in front of the White House in Washington D.C. There are over a million foreign workers (one-sixth of the population) from Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Sudan who have no allegiance to Qaddafi. There are even those who want to restore the Monarchy.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, there are simply tribes who wish to return historical control to Cyrenaica, as describe by one Libyan:
“When Qaddafi overthrew the King he essentially was taking away power from the tribes in Cyrenaica and placing the power with his tribes in Tripolitania.
“What’s going on today is that those tribes and and indigenous Berbers located in the Eastern half of Libya known as Cyrenaica have decided to take back what is rightfully theirs and what Gaddafi and the tribes backing him have stolen from them. These are no ‘protesters’ but Libyans belonging to oppressed classes and tribes that are willing to fight to return back to the seat of power of the country that was once theirs. This is why Gaddafi is fighting so strongly. He doesn’t consider them part of ‘His’ Libya and is frightened at Cyrenians gaining control of the country.”
The battle cry of “Freedom for Libya” may mean one thing to a Zuwayyan from Benghazi but the opposite to a Gadhadhfan from Sirte.
The 1969 Young Officers Movement’s vision of a “united socialist society”, of “free brothers” along the egalitarian model of Egypt’s Nasser was abandoned. The “path of freedom, unity, and social justice, guaranteeing the right of equality to its citizens, and opening before them the doors of honorable work” devolved into medieval tribalism over forty years. Perhaps nothing changes until tribalism is washed away by a new unity of one national working class in Libya. This is a lesson that could be well-taught by Egypt and Tunisia.