Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Cyrenaica Crisis: Will Libya Stay United?

The long struggle for Libya—which ended in late 2011 with the ignominious execution of Moammar al-Qaddafi by rebels, after months of civil war—may not be finished.  With the world’s attention now on the Syrian chapter in the Arab Spring saga, it has been easy to assume that Libya was one of the Arab Spring countries that was out of the woods—the dictator dead, a newly installed government born from the pro-democratic rebel movement, promising elections and recognized and supported by the international community.  First, though, came the disturbing news reports about how most of the impromptu militias which formed around the vast desert nation to bring down Qaddafi were not quite giving up their arms.  Then came the bombshell last week, when an organization calling itself the Congress of the People of Cyrenaica declared, unilaterally, that the oil-rich eastern third of Libya was now “autonomous.”  This was not a declaration of independence; these Cyrenaicans merely want a return to the very loose federal system that prevailed before Qaddafi took power in 1969, under which the three regions—Cyrenaica (Barqah, in Arabic), Tripolitania (Tarabulus, in Arabic), and Fezzan—mostly ran their own affairs.  But the Transitional National Council which has run Libya from Tripoli, in Tripolitania, since Qaddafi’s defeat, is reacting as though it were a declaration of independence.  Its chairman, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, has said that Libya will remain united, by force if necessary.  A Cyrenaica–Tripolitania divide is not an utterly new wrinkle, however; these are old rifts in Libyan society, exacerbated by the oil boom and by an inevitable struggle over what a post-Qaddafi Libya will stand for.

Libya’s traditional regions

Cyrenaica has been independent before.  From 1949 until 1951 it was the sovereign Emirate of Cyrenaica, established through the United Nations and the United Kingdom as part of the plan to deliver Libya into post-colonial hands after it was taken by the victorious Allies as Second World War booty from Benito Mussolini’s defeated Italy.

Flag of the independent Emirate of Cyrenaica (1949-1951)

Italy had conquered all of what is now Libya from the Ottoman Empire immediately before the First World War, in the Italo-Turkish War (not counting a brief period during which a largely unrecognized Republic of Tripolitania existed from 1919 to 1923—one candidate for the first republic in the Muslim world, a distinction also claimed by Azerbaijan).  When the Ottoman Empire was dismembered under the Treaty of Versailles, Italian lordship over the country was made official.  The Italians originally worked deftly through local leaders—in Cyrenaica, for example, co-opting one Sayyid Muhammad Idris bin Muhammad al-Mahdi as-Senussi and placing him in charge of the colony as Emir.  Idris was the grandson of Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi, the founder of the Senussi order, a local Islamic revivalist political and religious order which had been fighting, and later continued to fight, against European colonizers, be they Italian, French, or British.

Flag of the Tripolitanian Republic, 1919-1923

But by Mussolini’s time that kind of indirect rule, verging on autonomy, was swept away in favor of Fascist authoritarianism.  When the Allies carved up Italy’s colonies, the U.K. got Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (both territories corresponding to Ottoman vilayats, or provinces), and France got the former vilayat of Fezzan in the south, a mostly uninhabitable desert region abutting what were already the French colonies of Algeria, Niger, and Chad.  The English were much better than the French at striking deals with local traditional rulers and were instrumental in propping up the Emirate of Cyrenaica, reinstalling Emir Idris—who had aided the British against Nazi Germany’s Erwin Rommel during the war—as head of state.

Idris, first and only king of the United Libyan Kingdom

But make no mistake: all of this back-and-forth was not motivated by European (or Turkish) altruism, not even when, in 1951, the U.N. was ushering in a United Libyan Kingdom under the old emir, now King Idris I.  (Tripoli was the nominal capital, but Idris’s palace was in Benghazi, Cyrenaica’s main city.)  The British, by 1951, were seeing in Algeria what a headache it could be to have a North African colony and were easily coaxed by the U.N. into allowing Tripolitania to become part of the new kingdom.  Under the Senussi dynasty, European powers (whichever ones were in charge at the moment) had access to Cyrenaica’s vital harbors and eventually access to Libya’s share of that twentieth-century gold rush, the oil boom.  With Idris on the throne as head of state, British corporations were still a presence—even after the Suez Crisis in 1956, to the chagrin of Arab nationalists everywhere, who were becoming more anti-British after that showdown over control of Mediterranean trade routes.  And the way the Libyan economy was structured—this was more the case in Libya than in post-French Algeria or post-Spanish Morocco or certainly in Egypt after the Suez Crisis—not too much of that oil wealth trickled down to Africans themselves.  Idris also raised some hackles of regional leaders when he abolished the three more or less autonomous regions in 1963 and recast Libya as a unitary state subdivided into small, weak provinces.  It is all this that explains the appeal of Colonel Moammar al-Qaddafi, who took power in a military coup in 1969, using the moment of weakness when Idris, who had failed to produce an heir and had become enfeebled, was handing the reins of state to his nephew Prince Hasan al-Senussi (see genealogy below).  Qaddafi declared the Libyan Arab Republic, on Islamic socialist principles and as an avowed enemy of all forms of European colonialism.

Flag of the former United Libyan Kingdom—
and of the new, post-Qaddafi Libya as well

This anti-Europeanism served Qaddafi and Libya well.  Foreign firms were chased out.  Libya followed a Saudi Arabian model of strict authoritarianism coupled with a deft manipulation of its oil production for maximum revenue.  Qaddafi made Libya that rarest of birds: a debt-free Third World nation.  And it wasn’t even Third World: Libya had the highest standard of living in Africa and a form of cradle-to-grave socialism, free education, and free everything that put it in the same league as super-rich countries like Saudi Arabia and Sweden.  And, unlike Saudi Arabia, they did it without entanglement with European and Western corporations.  However, like the pigs in Animal Farm, Qaddafi turned into a king himself—a self-styled “King of Africa,” with him and his family enjoying lavish lifestyles funded by the nation’s oil revenues.  Nor was there any such thing as regional government; Qaddafi was the government.  Himself a tribal Bedouin Arab born in a tent in Tripolitania, he manipulated public opinion against the large Berber minority in Libya, calling their very existence a myth (though he was enlightened when it came to the cultural rights of “black” (sub-Saharan) Africans in Libya’s south).  And he favored Tripolitania in his many flamboyant development projects, leaving Cyrenaica, by the time of the 2011 civil war, with a rotting infrastructure.

Moammar al-Qaddafi

When the Libyan people joined the Arab Spring, Cyrenaica joined first, and for much of the bloody civil war that followed Benghazi was the rebel capital.  Tripoli was the last redoubt of the Qaddafi government, and he also managed to find succor among local people near the end in Fezzan—where tribal Tuareg nomads had long been his personal Cossack-type mercenary shock force.  The Senussi dynasty was right there aiding the rebels as well.  In fact, the current head of the pro-autonomy Cyrenaica Transitional Council is Ahmed Al-Zubair al-Senussi, who is not only the most important Cyrenaican on the internationally recognized Transitional National Council currently ruling Libya (a former political prisoner himself, he has the political-prisoners portfolio) but is also a great-great-grandson of the Senussi order’s founder, Muhammad ibn Ali as-Senussi and thus second-cousin-twice-removed to King Idris I.  (He was also King Idris’s nephew, since Ahmed al-Senussi’s aunt Fatima married Idris—Fatima and Idris being first cousins once removed—but never mind all that; see the genealogy below if you’re interested).

Ahmed al-Senussi, leader of the Cyrenaican autonomy movement

The autonomy declaration was also supported by all the major tribes from Cyrenaica, including the al-Manfah tribe, represented by Muhammad al-Mukhtar, son of Omar al-Mukhtar, a Libyan national hero in the struggle against Fascism rule during the Mussolini era.

Cyrenaicans, and especially the Senussi dynasty, perhaps hated Qaddafi more than anyone else.  But why are they still discontent now that he’s gone?  Numbers tell part of the story.  Cyrenaica has about 20% of Libya’s population, but 80% of its oil reserves—plus (unlike poor South Sudan) pipelines, refineries, and harbors to get it to market.  (Fezzan’s population is negligible.)  The autonomy they envision would allow the wealth to be distributed locally.  This is a familiar pattern: relatively sparsely-populated, oil-rich areas seeking independence or autonomy so as not to share so much of their resources and wealth with the larger population.  Separatist movements in Scotland, Alaska, and Kurdistan come to mind.  (See my recent article on the Scottish and Iraqi situations.)

When Chairman Jalil, Libya’s current transitional ruler, responded to the Cyrenaica declaration last week, he not only exaggerated the declaration of autonomy into essentially separatism, but he blamed the autonomy movement on back-stabbing “sister Arab nations” (he must have meant Morocco or Algeria?; Egypt and Tunisia both condemned the autonomy declaration) and remnant Qaddafi loyalists.  That last accusation is not only laughable but outrageous.  Ahmed al-Senussi spent most of his adulthood in one of Qaddafi’s prisons after he led a failed monarchist uprising in 1970.  And Cyrenaica was so much the solid heartland of anti-Qaddafi sentiment that at various points in the civil war observers wondered whether a military stalemate would lead to an independent Cyrenaica, leaving Qaddafi in charge of Tripolitania and Fezzan—a sort of Korea situation.  The civil war would have been no more than a slightly messy coup d’état if it had not been for Tripolitanian Qaddafi loyalists.  And Jalil himself was Qaddafi’s Minister of Justice for years until the 2011.  And in Qaddafi’s Libya, believe you me, whoever claws his way to becoming the minister in charge of that dictatorship’s vast secret police network and kangaroo courts is not going to be a nice person.  Jalil is hardly in a position to accuse the Cyrenaican élite of being pro-Qaddafi.

Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Libya’s transitional ruler

Essentially, Jalil is trying to paper over some uncomfortable facts that the Cyrenaica declaration lays bare.  First, the revolution is not over.  Libyans who sacrificed everything to depose Qaddafi are noting that just next door in Egypt the new military transitional government is trying so hard to hold onto power that street protests have erupted all over again.  The leadership at the very top in Egypt has not really changed, and, so long as Jalil is still in charge, that is true in Libya as well.  Libyan elections have been scheduled, but Libya won’t be a democracy until they’re actually held.  Libya has never had a democratic government before; many Libyans worry that a former Qaddafi minister might not be the person to trust with that transition.

Second, related to the above, I will conjecture from what is happening in public that Ahmed al-Senussi and Jalil have butted heads in private on the T.N.C.—likely on the question of political prisoners and the reform of the justice system, an area of expertise for both of them, from different ends of the gun.

And, third, in this tumultuous time it is safe to say that whether Libya will be open for business and with whom is still an open question, debated within the T.N.C.  Certainly, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, in helping the rebels win the war, hoped that Libya would reengage economically with the world, and also has been eager to ensure—as per usual in United States and western European military interventions—a transition to a Western-friendly government that is open for business.  During the later Qaddafi years, especially after his 2003 rapprochement with the international community, there was quite a lot of U.S. and U.K. investment in Libya’s oil business (Italian, Canadian, and French as well).  But Qaddafi’s oil industry (like Saddam Hussein’s) was nationalized; foreign firms cut deals with the Libyan state oil monopoly, but could not own any of it—and a huge amount of Libya’s oil profits was swept right back into the state’s socialist coffers.  How much of that will change? and who can make the transition?

Libyan rebels during the 2011 civil war

Keep in mind that, for all the U.S. demonization of him in the 1980s, Qaddafi had by the very end become a sort of ally of the West.  He gave up his nuclear program in 2003—wisely, after watching the U.S. bomb Iraq into the Stone Age as punishment for a nuclear program they didn’t have—and was finally playing ball with international courts on compensation for the 1988 terrorist bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland.  Qaddafi surely understood that the War on Terror was, among other things, a cover for taking down the small number of regimes that would not open up their oil wealth to U.S. interests—meaning, as of 2001, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.  This was, as is well documented, the explicit policy of George W. Bush’s presidency, well before the September 11, 2001, attacks (though Libya, more in the European zone of economic influence, was at the bottom of the list).  So Qaddafi, protean desert fox that he is, turned himself into someone who was useful to the West in the battle against al-Qaeda in the Arab world.  Qaddafi and his Tuareg mercenaries worked closely with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.) in the late Bush and early Barack Obama administrations.  And we all remember how rebels sorting through Qaddafi’s presidential palace last year found documentation of Qaddafi’s creepy love-crush on the Bush’s Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice.  No wonder U.S. participation in NATO’s Libya operation was so restrained and half-hearted; in U.S.-foreign-policy parlance, Qaddafi had become our son of a bitch.  Perhaps the U.S. even helped make sure that former Qaddafi loyalists like Jalil were on the N.T.C.—you know, just for continuity, if there has to be a revolution.

Qaddafi’s secret photo album.  He also reportedly spent a lot of time writing
“Mrs. Condoleezza al-Qaddafi” in flowing cursive all over his Pee-Chee folder.

So who will be the West’s son-of-a-bitch now?  Who will be the West’s man to run Libya?  Jalil, who surely, given his position, was privy to (if not deeply involved in) Qaddafi’s cooperation with the C.I.A., would be one candidate—and one with ready-made ties to the C.I.A. and to the U.S. corporations it serves.  Ahmed al-Senussi, with his family’s ties to the British intelligence network and the corporations it serves, would be another.  It remains to be seen just how convergent U.S. and U.K. interests in Libya are, and who their proxies are.

Obama and Qaddafi

There may be elements of a power struggle within the Senussi dynasty as well.  King Idris’s great-nephew and designated heir, son of Prince Hasan, is Muhammad al-Rida al-Senussi, who was born and raised in Tripoli and educated in the U.K. (see the genealogy below).  A rival claimant is Sayyid Idris bin Abdullah al-Senussi, who was born and raised in Benghazi, then exiled when Qaddafi came to power.  Now, in Arab culture, there is no rule of primogeniture as there is in European royal families.  That is to say, for example, Queen Elizabeth I is not allowed to decide that Prince Charles is a cad and a bounder and his ears stick out too much and therefore Edward or Andrew shall be the next king; the rule of the first-born is paramount.  In Arab dynasties, however, succession is flexible and highly politicized; it is all about whom the incumbent monarch designates.  This makes for dramatic and occasionally unpredictable transfers of power—and it also makes for a situation where brother princes compete with one another.  As it happens, Ahmed al-Senussi’s branch of the family is Sayyid Idris’s, not Muhammad al-Rida’s, though it’s unclear at this point where his sympathies lie in royal politics.  Presumably, as a Cyrenaican autonomist, he might favor the branch with the actual close cultural ties to Cyrenaica, i.e. Sayyid Idris’s (although here I am careful to frame my opinions of this opaque society as the sheer conjectures of an observer—however an educated observer, and one with extensive professional experience documenting and analyzing traditional forms of political succession in other parts of the world).  None of these Libyan royals is actively seeking a restoration of the Senussi or any monarchy.  But, even as a decommissioned royal class, their politics—which right now are Libya’s politics—are inflected by family dynamics.  The implications for Libya’s direction are possibly quite direct.

Granted, we will probably never know exactly what is going on behind the scenes in this new regional-based power struggle in Libya—and who knows, perhaps the Cyrenaican autonomy movement will go nowhere.  But it may just be that different foreign and internal powers have dogs in this fight.  And, sorry to point this out, but they still haven’t quite held those elections yet, have they?  No, the Libyan revolution is not quite over.  And it is in the hearts and minds of Cyrenaican nationalists that the next phase may be played out.

Cyrenaica’s coat of arms

(For more commentary on the Cyrenaica declaration, see this insightful Al-Jazeera opinion piece.)

[You can read more about these and many other separatist and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]

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