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Fezzan (wikipedia.org)

Fezzan

It has been asked recently, why, after thousands of articles on Libya and the uprising, there has been almost nothing published about the Fezzan, the southern of the three regions of Libya.  Every journalist has reported breathlessly on each skirmish and every village on the coast – from Benghazai in Cyrenaica to Tripoli in Tripolitania, but not a word on the Fezzan… why?

The short answer is: no one is protesting – they generally support the government. Absence of protest does not make for good copy in the New York Times or the Times of London. While this blog has posted a number of articles on Fezzan here and here, few others have.
Fezzan is the south-western region of Libya with a population of one-half million people (one-tenth of the country) living in the few habitable locations between expansive desert: in the north by the Ash-Shati Valley, in the west by the Irawan Valley and spots in the Tibesti Mountains near the Chad border.
Libya Regions
Many of the tribes in Fezzan stretch across the southern borders and many there have dual Chadian/ Libyan citizenships.  The tribes do not conform to colonialist boundaries that the Italians (and Ottomans) used to create Libya (as do few nation-states in Africa).  The two largest groups in the Fezzan are the Tuaregs and the Tebus.
The Tuareg people are Berbers (the largest group in Fezzan) and their population spans from southwest Libya through Niger, Algeria and Mali. In general they speak Tamasheq, rather than Arabic, and have historically been nomadic.
Colored regions showing the locations of Tuareg confederacies & territories (Temehu.com).
The black-skinned Tebu tribe extends from eastern Fezzan deep into Chad and somewhat into eastern Mali.  They have been caught up in various disputes during the rebellion, mostly at the insistence of the ‘rebels’ that they were foreign African mercenaries. The acceptance of this rumor as fact has been denounced by Human Rights Watch.  Confounding the issue has been the dual-citizens between Libya and Chad, and numbers of sub-Saharan migrant laborers that have many years ago taken up residence in Libya and now have Libyan citizenship.
http://www.african-tribes.org/map-of-african-tribes-2502x2984.jpg
There are many North Africans and sub-Saharans who have settled in Fezzan after Qaddafi’s open-boarder invitations to Africans and after his futile dallyings in conflicts in Chad and elsewhere.  But Fezzan has benefited from Qaddafi’s pan-Africanism, and economic development.
“Recent growth here is associated instead with massive new irrigation facilities and with road-building and other infrastructural projects undertaken by the Libyan government. Some of this activity has been aimed at linking Libya more closely to sub-Saharan Africa, one of the cornerstones of Gaddafi’s ambitious foreign policy agenda.

“As of March 1, 2011, Fezzan remained firmly under the control of the Gaddafi regime, with no indication of rebel activity in any of its cities or towns.”

Center-Pivot Irrigation in Dessert near Aqar, Libya (Google.com)

Man Made River And Irrigation Fezzan (Google.com)

Time magazine quoted some Fezzan Gaddafi troops that had been sent to quell the uprising in Cyenaica:

“We were afraid to go out because we are dark-skinned and we thought they would think we’re mercenaries and attack us.”

And this from NowLebanon, which recognized Qaddafi’s opposition to racial discrimination against Tebu tribes:
“There are dark-skinned Libyans in the south of the country who are largely loyal to Qaddafi because he did take steps to end systematic discrimination against dark-skinned Libyans,” said Bouckaert.
And so, we hear little of this segment of modern Libya – it is remote, and most especially does not conform to the desired image of a population in revolt against a ‘tyrannical despot’.
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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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