Cross-posted from Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi at Bikyamasr
As Gaddafi’s forces have started to lose ground, specifically with the recent end of firm loyalist control over the town of Misurata, one of the key points raised by critics of the foreign military intervention in Libya has been to draw analogies with Iraq in 2003. For example, Andrew Sullivan argues that the U.S. and other nations have resorted to military action without fully taking into account the nature of the rebellion, in the same way that before the 2003 invasion of Iraq policymakers in Washington did not factor in the real and deep sectarian divisions amongst the Iraqi people as part of their post-war planning.
To what extent has tribalism played a role in igniting the uprising? How many different factions are there amongst the Libyan rebels? What are the aims of these various groups amongst the anti-Gaddafi forces? Who precisely are Gaddafi’s Libyan supporters? These are all legitimate questions. Though it is probable that Gaddafi’s regime will soon fall, it is unlikely that any of the intervening Western countries will set up a ‘Coalition Provisional Authority’ (CPA) for post-Gaddafi Libya as happened in Iraq. Nonetheless, the more we know about the ethnic and tribal divisions amongst Libya’s population, the better.
The people of present-day Libya were artificially brought together in 1951 through a UN plan for the unification of three historic Ottoman provinces that had been occupied by Italy in 1911, then by Britain and France in 1943 following the expulsion of Italian forces from North Africa in the Second World War. The newly established constitutional, pro-Western monarchy of King Idris I, with a democratic parliamentary system, continued the dominance of the Cyrenaican tribes (i.e. those in the northeast around Benghazi, which is the main base for the rebels) and the as-Sanusi religious order that had existed since the time of Ottoman rule.
However, Gaddafi’s military coup in 1969 against Idris embodied the aspirations of the rural Sirtica tribes from Fazzan (southwest Libya), including concepts of fierce independence, strong Islamic convictions, belief in a communal lifestyle, and hatred of the urban rich. Though Gaddafi eschewed the religious establishment, he wiped out private enterprise and the middle-classes, banished European settlers and Jews, and initially promoted the idea of majoritarian democracy in the form of jamahiriyah (state of the masses). Nevertheless, resentment of the regime began to grow when it became clear that Gaddafi was concentrating power in the hands of the Sirtica tribes, especially the Qadhadhfa clan to which he belonged.
In addition, Gaddafi has traditionally enjoyed the support of the nomadic Touareg tribes of the south, and it is apparent that many of the Touareg are now fighting to keep his regime in power, fearing persecution at the hands of the rebels. Although Gaddafi, in advocating usage of Arabic alone, has never disguised his hatred for the existence of the Touareg language (one of the various Berber languages spoken across North Africa), his rhetoric of a borderless Islamic republic in the Sahara appealed to many of the Touareg, whom he supported in their insurgency campaigns against the governments of Chad and Niger.
The parallels with Iraq should be evident. The ruling regime’s supposedly Arab nationalist ideology, like that of Baathist Iraq, has merely been a veil for a form of minority despotism. Now, one should not deny that there are members of the Sirtica and Touareg tribes who would be more than glad to see an end to Gaddafi’s 42-year tyrannical rule. Yet the crucial point is that if those leading the present Libyan rebellion sincerely wish to establish a liberal democracy (not majoritarian mob rule) and stability in their own country once the current regime is gone, they must learn from the mistakes of Iraq’s post-Saddam Shi’a politicians and the American officials in the CPA. Namely, they must not solidify ethnic divisions amongst Libya’s population by pursuing vindictive and punitive policies against the tribes that have historically backed Gaddafi and his regime, but rather aim for a ‘truth and reconciliation’ process similar to what took place in post-apartheid South Africa. Countries participating in the foreign intervention would do well to encourage the leaders of Libya’s rebels to adopt such a plan.
This might seem like simple advice, but it can hardly be over-emphasised when one considers how the ranks of the Sunni insurgency swelled in Iraq once the de-Baathification policy essentially turned into de-Sunnification, culminating in the sectarian civil war of 2006. One can only imagine the stress that would be caused by a huge influx of refugees into Europe and neighbouring North African nations if a similar situation were to arise in Libya.