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Libya’s Centuries-Old Divisions

In the newest issue of The American Interest, a short essay by Professor of Middle Eastern studies Karim Mezran succinctly details Libya’s historical divisions, the 1911 Libyan revolt against Italy, and European meddling in North Africa — and their impact on today’s conflict in Libya. Take a look at the full article here. Meanwhile, some food for thought:

In a region characterized by geographical, political, economic and cultural separateness, this approach [the Ottoman policy of granting a certain level of autonomy in exchange for annual tribute] reinforced existing tribal divides. Indeed, vast deserts form natural land barriers that resulted in the early delineation of the three Libyan regions and helped maintain their historical isolation and diversity. Tripolitania’s cultural traditions and economy were oriented toward the Maghreb, with which it shared a common Roman history. Cyrenaica, on the contrary, as a result of Greek colonization, looked east to the Mashriq. Fezzan remained a semi-nomadic and barely self-sufficient society that interacted principally with sub-Saharan Africa, with the single exception of its interactions with the caravan trade.

Prof. Mezran also rightly draws connections between historical and current European involvement in Libya. France, the UK and Italy have continued the nineteenth and twentieth century European competition for north African colonies:

Italy moved first to suggest a negotiated end to the war that might leave Qaddafi in place, in hopes of rescuing some of its advantages in Libya. France and the United Kingdom would have none of that. If in the 1911 war these two countries decided to leave the field clear for Italy, in the current war France is the most active player both diplomatically and militarily, followed by Britain. Only a week after the revolts broke out in Libya, French President Nicolas Sarkozy asked Qaddafi to leave the country…All this French diplomatic activity essentially blocked any possible Italian defense of its interests. Whatever really motivated the French — whether it was commercial considerations or the French elite’s embarrassment over the government’s underplaying the initial revolt in Tunisia — it will be interesting to see if they attempt to insert their national oil company, Total, into Libya at Eni’s expense.

In the conclusion, Prof. Mezran sees parallels between today’s conflict and the Libyan resistance against Italian rule in 1911.

In any event, the Italian occupation of Libya in the first half of the 20th century had a disastrous effect on the country and its people, despite its having also been the painful spark that eventually united the country. The stalemate in 2011 may cause a de facto division of Libya. In short, it may undo the sole benefit of the 1911 war from the Libyan point of view…a common consequence of both wars will be that the Libyan people end up the biggest losers.

Like many “Wilsonian wars”, the days not weeks war in Libya turns out to be the product of some very mixed motives.

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