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Posts Tagged ‘King Idris’

For those curious about what’s below the surface in Libya, beyond the simplistic “good rebels” versus “bad dictator” we hear from most of the western media, one can find an excellent report today by Charles Levinson – “Behind Libya Rifts, Tribal Politics”. It is a stroll through the powerful tribal allegiances that fuel the Libyan conflict today, as they have for hundreds of years.

A week ago we noted the signs of an “internecine and degenerative” conflict rather than simply a democratic uprising… and this danger of civil war looks even closer now.  The jockeying of Libyan tribes for power has been going on for over a century.  While many in Libya want an end to injustice, or an inclusion in the economic rewards of an oil economy, the eastern Cyrenaica tribes want something more:  as one astute Libyan called it, the return of control “over what is rightfully theirs” – the return of Cyrenaican rule over all the other tribes of Libya.  But many other tribes, now allied with the current government, have no intention of giving up their power and spoils obtained at the expense of the eastern tribes.

The spoils of tribal loyalism in Libya are almost as stunning as is the degradation of tribal exclusion.  There are the government jobs, social benefits and neighborhood infrastructure that come with tribal support to the regime, in contrast to the open sewers, unemployment and barren infrastructure of tribal exclusion seen in Benghazi:

“The city of one million has one sewage treatment plant, built more than 40 years ago. Waste is just flushed into the ground or the sea, and when the water table rises in winter, the streets become open cesspools. Benghazi, the second largest city in a country with vast oil wealth and a tiny population, is rotting in its own fifth.”

To further the control of tribes over their population, there is the tradition of ‘collective responsibility’ of each tribe for any disloyalty amongst its members. Thus when leaders of the Warfalla tribe plotted a coup in 1993, the entire tribe paid the penalty. This punishment of disloyal tribes is not exclusive to the Gaddafi regime, but was a hallmark also of King Idris’ rule in the 1950’s and 60’s.

“King Idriss Senussi, maintained power with the support of his privileged castle guard, known as the Cyrenaican Defense Force. Their ranks were filled almost exclusively with members of eastern Libya’s Saady tribes.”

King Idris used the Senussi religious ties to maintain loyalty of the eastern tribes, and this monarchy was overthrown by Gaddafi’s revolt in 1968 in part for its exclusion of all tribes in the center and west of Libya – Qaddafi’s included. While Qaddafi initially attempted to do away with tribal rule after coming to power, he soon found it too powerful and instead reverted back to the traditional tribal councils to manage loyalties.

The loyalties to power are strong. One now witnesses more loyal tribes sabotaging the rebels, not only in Sirte (Gaddafi’s hometown) and Tripoli, but in Bin Jawad and other western towns. As Reuters noted,

“Rebels said they had been relying on the residents of government-held towns to rise up and join them, but this is likely to become harder as they move west into more affluent areas that have benefitted from Gaddafi’s rule. […]

“‘We got calls from the people of Bin Jawad telling us to come through and that all was well. Then we were ambushed,’ said Hani Zwei. ‘I can’t believe our own countrymen would do that.'”

While tribal brinkmanship may surprise some urban youth, others are keenly aware of it, as in this debate between rebels:

“‘Whoever has a gun, go now and fight in Bin Jawad,’ said one rebel.
“‘No, no this is how we’ll start the civil war,’ hit back the other.”

The 1,000 years of tribal history is hardly lost on those in the leadership of the rebellion:

“Many of the leaders now emerging in eastern Libya hail from the Harabi tribe, including the head of the provisional government set up in Benghazi, Abdel Mustafa Jalil, and Abdel Fatah Younis, who assumed a key leadership role over the defected military ranks early in the uprising.

“‘If you scratch the surface, you’ll find a lot of the new leaders, a lot of those who defected to the rebels early, are from old tribes and families who served the Senussi monarchy,’ [Jason Pack, a Libya scholar at Oxford University] said.”

Meanwhile the rumors of Gaddafi’s ‘black African foreign mercenaries’ continues apace, in what HRW calls “lazy, irresponsible journalism on the part of the mainstream media who publish rumors as truth”.  The rumors have been used by the rebels to stoke the historical racial violence and hatred in eastern Libya toward the dark-skinned Libyans from the southern Fezzan tribes, also supporters of Qaddafi.

If this rat’s nest of alliances, betrayal and tribal intrigue sounds familiar to Americans, it should.  They are still reeling from their unlearned lessons of the unwinnable politics of tribalism in America’s adventure in Afghanistan – what Obama called “the necessary war” – and in Iraq.

Perhaps it should not be surprising also that Obama sees in this festering swamp of internecine Libyan warfare a “wide range of potential options, including potential military options” as he steps slowly but inexorably into the interventionist camp with the warhawks Kerry, Clinton and McCain.  Whether this slide into another war is already unstoppable, is too soon to tell, but we can rest assured that NATO is already taking Obama’s hint and preparing the option of an end-run around the UN’s Security Council, which is opposed to intervention.  Says NATO Secretary General Rasmussen,

“If Gaddafi and his military continue to attack the Libyan population systematically, I can’t imagine the international community and UN standing idly by.”

© Peter Fay,  2011, theclearview.wordpress.com

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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.”

Libyan protester

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.

Libyan investments

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.

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