The history of Libyan unity and partition

In 1949, Benjamin Rivlin wrote an instructive piece “Unity and Nationalism in Libya” (JSTOR), excerpt:

…the Big Four have been sharply divided on the question of Libyan unity…In supporting the Sanusi claims, Great Britain has become the chief advocate of a divided Libya…Similarly, the United States has given support to a divided Libya by abandoning its original proposal for an international trusteeship, in favor of support for the British position…Not to be forgotten is…France, also, advocated a partitioning of Libya, but a partition of its own special variety.  Under the guise of “border rectifications,” France has laid claim to the Fezzan in southwestern Tripolitania and to all of Libya south of the Tropic of Cancer…The French claim is based primarily on the fact that Free French troops wrested this desert region from Italian control, and is an attempt to bolster the sagging prestige of France as a world power by a tangible reward for its role in the war.

The Soviet Union opposed a partition of Libya and favored Italian trusteeship.  Back then, it seems that Europe took the lead role and the U.S. followed along.  Here is one good sentence:

In examining the history of Libya one is struck with the fact that only on rare occasions has the area constituted a unified political entitity…there have never been firm bonds of union.

The difference between the two territories goes back to antiquity, when the territory was divided by rule by Greece and rule by Phoenicia.  Even when Italy claimed the country in 1912, it effectively governed over two separate territories, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.  What is the fundamental principle of division?:

The division of Libya into Cyrenaica and Tripolitania down through the ages is no mere quirk of history.  It reflects, rather, the basic physiographic character of the territory.  A great natural barrier — the Gulf of Sirte [now Sidra] and the projection of Libyan desert along its 400-mile shore — divides Cyrenaica from Tripolitania, limiting communication between the two territories and to a very large extent shaping their economies.  Trade between the two territories has played a minor role, and the movement of the nomadic tribes in both territories has been and remains north-south, not east-west.

And:

Unity vs. separatism has been the chief concern of all political leaders in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica ever since the relaxation of military administration controls during the past three years…

Here is a summary of the Sanusi.  Here is a useful map.  Having read this article, I have revised upwards my priors on the likelihood of partition as the result of the current conflict, whether or not Gaddafi falls.

Comments

Tyler, talking about unity and partition, let me remind you that yesterday I asked you to comment on this proposal
http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/03/17/1059132/legislator-says-the-state-needs.html
Question: will the U.S. monetary union break down in the next 10 years?

Not realistic. Rep. Glen Bradley seems quite the looney anyways. And he has half a degree in; guess what? Theology.

Here is a better map

http://www.libyan-stamps.com/images2/x-HISTORY-10b.jpg

Tyler is correct that Libya, similar with many African nations, has "artificial" boundaries. It just happens to be the part of North Africa that the Turks and later the Italians managed to grab in the nineteenth and twentieth century, and Tripoletania and Cyrenaica have little in common otherwise geographically or historically.

However, I don't think this is the cause of the current troubles, and I'm not sure we will know the cause of the current troubles until documents are declassified several decades later. There is also the issue that Libya, with 4.5 million people, probably has too small a population to be a nation state already. Splitting the country into two or three parts would mean creating countries with the population of a West Indian island state.

A better idea would be partition, but with Cyrenaica going to Egypt, Tripolitania going to Tunisia, and the Fezzan going to Chad, mainly in compensation for the Libyan invasions of Chad in the 1980s. Historically, Cyrenaica has often been ruled from Egypt and Tripolitania from what is now Tunisia. This partition would give Egypt and Tunisia some oil fields, both countries are overpopulated and could use the additional income.

Thanks for the informative post - but I find it a bit dubious to argue that historical relationships of foreign control can justify the re-institution of the same.

Benghazi was able to re-create (or maintain, I guess) civil society when they revolted - I think they should be left to decide their own fate, with offers of assistance by the nations exploiting their oil reserves if and when they ask for assistance. I don't think it makes sense to turn power over them to other nations, especially considering how long ago they ceased to have power over the Libyan regions.

If 'left to their own fate' means let them be butchered by Qathafi then that's a great idea.
Here's some strategic analysis on the situation.
http://turcopolier.typepad.com/sic_semper_tyrannis/

Der Speigel has a reasonable map as well.
http://www.spiegel.de/flash/flash-25431.html

Divvying up Libya between its neighbours is a bad idea even if you ignore the implausibilities of Libyans wanting this partition and its neighbour countries wantiong these territories.

Point taken on updating priors on partition. What's different today, in comparison the history, is oil as a valuable commodity (and its handmaiden, the power of the state to redistribute oil income). Libya's oil is geographically concentrated. Those regions without oil are going to resist partition. On the other hand, unlike, say, the UAE, those with the oil may resist unification because those who obtain political power in a unified democratic Libya may not be those with the oil.

In supporting the Sanusi claims, Great Britain has become the chief advocate of a divided Libya

Well, it worked so well in India and Cyprus and Palestine and Ireland, as Yes, Prime Minister pointed out.

To comment on the link provided by E. Barandiaran, this is one of those cases where the proposal itself is not crazy -state banks issued currency in the nineteenth century- but for now, only crazy people would advocate it.

I'd be curious to know of what TC thinks about history as an undergraduate major.

An even better map: http://goo.gl/maps/9tUu
The main inhabited areas in green (Cyrenaica to the East and Tripolitania to the West). Also note that the rebel (Libyan independence/kingdom) flag originates in the Cyrenaica flag, while the official Libyan/Gaddafi flag originates in the Tripolitanian flag. However note that the Benghazi rebels do not want to secede (they're trying to push West towards Tripoli) and the Western rebels in the Tripolitanian cities of Zawiyah and Misurata/Misratah use the same rebel flag.
Overall, I'd be rather optimistic about Libyan unity and democratic perspectives. More like Albania than Biafra.

Very interesting post.

If partition re-occurs, it will probably not be because of willing decisions by Libyans - virtually all have spoken out against this role and in the early phases of the revolt when intervention was proposed, the dissenting opinions of rebels did speak of fear of US partitioning Libya. Additionally, no member of the Arab League or African Union would be very happy with partition.

The real danger is a de facto partition put in place by the stalemating of the civil war. If Gaddafi cannot gain the strength to crush the rebels, and the rebels cannot muster the strength to take Tripoli, then we will see separate governments in practice. Given that the current Western intervention in Libya is basically tending towards this outcome (aerial support can keep Gaddafi from crushing Benghazi, but it cannot compensate for the poor organization and equipment of rebel ground forces), the US, France and UK should be very concerned about whether we are setting ourselves up for a strategic end-state that rebels and our Arab partners cannot accept.

Agree with Tyler and posted on this on Econospeak two days, making very similar arguments, although without the details of what went on in 1949.

BTW, regarding the map, it should be understood that while the tripartite division into Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan is of longstanding, it officially ceased to exist under the kingdom in 1963, when the provinces were dissolved into smaller governance units that still exist.

Trade between the two territories has played a minor role, and the movement of the nomadic tribes in both territories has been and remains north-south, not east-west.

If so, then these are probably different peoples. Which means it's an ethnic conflict. Surprise!

DK,

This is correct. The population in the east is much more regular Arab, whereas in the west they are partly Berber, with the easterners being mostly Mailiki Sunnis, whereas some in the west, particularly among the more strongly Berber, being Khariji Muslims, a sect that is neither Sunni nor Shi'i. Indeed, Qaddafi himself (and his whole tribe) is an Arabized Berber, very much a westerner.

The Berber towns in Western Libya rebelled too (the Western Mountains - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nafusa_Mountains - and Zuwarah). Unfortunately, Zuwarah was 'pacified' around last week and Zintan is probably being shelled as we speak.
As for sectarian conflicts, no such conflicts reported yet.

Qaddafi has expressed contempt for Berbers who are not assimilated into Arabic. Not surprising they are not big fans of his. His tribe of Arabized Berbers supports him thought.

qClZnc Very true! Makes a change to see someone spell it out like that. :)

Very interesting post.

If partition re-occurs, it will probably not be because of willing decisions by Libyans – virtually all have spoken out against this role and in the early phases of the revolt when intervention was proposed, the dissenting opinions of rebels did speak of fear of US partitioning Libya. Additionally, no member of the Arab League or African Union would be very happy with partition.

The real danger is a de facto partition put in place by the stalemating of the civil war. If Gaddafi cannot gain the strength to crush the rebels, and the rebels cannot muster the strength to take Tripoli, then we will see separate governments in practice. Given that the current Western intervention in Libya is basically tending towards this outcome (aerial support can keep Gaddafi from crushing Benghazi, but it cannot compensate for the poor organization and equipment of rebel ground forces), the US, France and UK should be very concerned about whether we are setting ourselves up for a strategic end-state that rebels and our Arab partners cannot accept.

http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/separation-may-be-solution-for-lasting-peace-in-libya-20110323-1c6cf.html

Ross Cameron and John Ruddick arrive at the same conclusion - Libya should be partitioned - on 23 March in the Sydney Morning Herald

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