Posts Tagged ‘King Idris’
In Libya the Tebu people of Kufra have long been marginalised. For many years, Gaddafi’s people pursued a program of ‘arabiseation’ which effectively meant the persecution of the Tebu as this report by the Human Rights Council makes clear: “Some 4,000 Toubou [Tebu] people are living in the town of Kufra, an oasis city of 44,000 inhabitants some 2,000 kilometres from Tripoli. In the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya [Gaddafi’s Libya], they were treated as foreigners by the authorities. In December 2007, the Libyan Government withdrew citizenship from members of the Toubou group, stating that they were not Libyans but Chadians. Furthermore the local authorities issued decrees barring Toubou from access to education and health care services. The armed movement “Front for the Salvation of the Toubou Libyans” …. opposed these measures. Up to 33 people died in Kufra, during five days of fighting between the official security forces and the Toubou in November 2008. Despite public criticism, the government of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya [continued] to expel Toubou people from their residential areas in Kufra. Since November 2009 dozens of families lost their homes due to forced destruction by bulldozers supervised by state security forces.”
The hostility between the black Tebu people and the white al Zawiya tribe has long been endemic in Kufra and has escalated into open warfare since the heavy hand of the Gaddafi regime was lifted after the 2011 civil war. Here are some notes which may help to understand the long running enmity between the ethnic Tebu people and the Zawiya tribe in Kufra. (A note here about transliteration and the Zawiya tribe. The tribal name may appear in a number of spellings. Rosita Forbes, who is quoted below, used Souais. Nowadays Libyans often use the name Sway as the Zawiya are known thus locally. Also the Tebu are often honoured with a number of spelling variations, such as Toubu and other near approximations)
The Tebu people of Kufra, Sebha and Muzuq are part of a wider ethnic group called the Teda, desert warriors living in the eastern and central Sahara and, effectively, a black people without nationality. The majority of them can be found in the Tibesti Mountains on the Libyan-Chad border. Their harsh environment, extreme poverty, and remote location make them a very tough people. They have often clashed with the neighbouring tribes and with the Tuareg and, like the gypsies in Great Britain, are despised by the dominant communities who see them as petty thieves and liars.
Traditionally, the Teda controlled the caravan trade routes that passed through their territory. They were widely known in the past for plundering and salve trading. Their language is Tebu and their basic social unit is the nuclear family, organized into clans. They live by a combination of pastoralism, farming, subsistence smuggling and date cultivation.
The Zawiya is a ‘client tribe’ which owes allegiance to the aristocratic Magharba tribe with which it shares a border in the north. This client relationship goes back into antiquity and the Zawiya ignore it at best and resent it at worst. Desert traders and nomadic pastoralists the Zawiya conquered Kufra in 1840 subduing the indigenous Tebu, the non-Arab pan- Saharan ethic group which, at some time in the distant past, maintained a notable presence there. The remnants of their dwellings and forts are still visible. Some suggest that Kufra was the ancient centre of the whole Teda people and even in the late 18th and early 19th centuries they had been in contact with the oases of Egypt and Cyrenaica. The literature is full of stories of their ability to travel between widely dispersed water sources on their special breed of camel and of their lawlessness and sometimes harsh treatment of slaves.
Since 1840 or thereabouts the Zawiya tribe has owned most of the date palm groves of the Kufra oases, employing the Tebu as labourers and extending its trading route into the last African Sultanate to fall to western imperialism, the Wadai, now part of Chad. It is said that Kufra under Zawiya rule was the most noted centre of brigandage in the Sahara. Plus ça change – plus c’est la même chose.
The Zawiya leadership promised the Grand Senussi, Mohamed Ben Ali as-Senussi, a liberal donation of dates and water if he would establish a religious community in Kufra. This he did and the Senussi order eventually moved its headquarters to Kufra from whence it exercised its moral and temporal suasion and commercial competence over the hitherto predatory Zawiya, establishing a profitable trans-Saharan trade in slaves and arms.
Unlike other trans-Saharan routes the Senussi control over the Wadai to Benghazi road via Kufra reduced the costs to slave merchants who were not, therefore, obliged to pay tolls even though their caravans passed through a number of tribal territories. However, the Senussi theocracy and the slave trade through Kufra were under threat from the French who were advancing their empire towards Chad and from the Italians who had commenced to colonise north eastern shore of Libya. Thus the slavers were losing access to the Mediterranean ports in the north and the supply of slaves from the south.
It was in 1910 that the Italians launched their colonial occupation of Libya and gradually extended their dominance over the country. In the east they met resistance from the Libyan tribes on whose most profitable land they had established Italian agricultural settlements and whose migratory life they restricted and disrupted. The logistical problems posed by the huge distance and lack of fodder and water between the Italian bases on the Mediterranean coast meant that the Senussi theocracy based in Kufra was for many years beyond their reach. What is more the Italians became embroiled in World War I and had little time or resources with which to mount an attack on Kufra, protected as it was by distance and an arc of impassable sand seas. In 1920 they adopted the pragmatic policy of appointing the future King of Libya, Mohamed Idris es Senussi, Emir of Cyrenaica with his capital at Kufra. .
In the early years of the 20th Century there were a number of blank areas on the maps of the Libyan Desert. For some time stories circulating about three lost or ‘forbidden’ oases, Kufra, Jebel ‘Uwainat and Zazura, had been circulating amongst geographers. Even the Royal Geographical Society published a paper about Zazura, which turned out to be a mythical place.
In 1921/22 a remarkable expedition to the hitherto closed oasis of Kufra was made by two colourful travellers. One was the Oxford educated Egyptian civil servant and explorer Hassanien Bey and the other an intrepid adventuress, travel writer and novelist, Rosita Forbes. By virtue of Hassanien Bey’s considerable influence with the Emir, Idris es Senussi, they acquired permission to visit the Senussi lodge and mausoleum in Kufra and overcame opposition amongst the Zawiya tribesman to visit the villages in the vicinity. Rosita Forbes managed to conceal a camera about her person with which she managed to take some unique photographs. (In doing this the she was risking her life. Even in 1960s I would not have dared to use my camera freely in much of Libya). The pair found evidence of a continuing, though by now clandestine, slave trade. The odd couple’s considerable journey by camel to the forbidden oasis is described in Forbes’ book ‘The Secret of the Sahara, Kufra’. At one point in their return journey they were under the impression that a band of Tebu was stalking them with malign intent. This may have been why Forbes described the Tebu as ‘the Berber aborigines of Libya. They wear only sheep skins and eat a mixture of powdered dates and locusts’. Some of her photographs appeared in ‘The Illustrated London News’ dated 21st May 1921. One of the photographs is of ruined stone dwellings which, she asserted, were built at some time in antiquity by the Tebu. Forbes estimated that ‘the population of Kufara and Buseima is about 3,000 Zouais (Zawiya) and 100 to 150 Tebu. In addition to these there are a large number of Negroid slaves from Wadai and Darfur’.
On 28th December 1930 the Italian colonial power in Libya was sufficiently strengthened and equipped to launch an attack on the Emir’s Sothern oasis stronghold of Kufra. For the first time the Italians used self contained motorised columns supported by aircraft which traversed the Libyan Desert to project overwhelming power across huge waterless distances and over hitherto impregnable sand seas. The Italian mechanised attack, supported by aerial bombardment and strafing, was quick to reduce Zawiya resistance in Kufra and forced the Senussi family to flee to Siwa in Egypt.
Those inhabitants who made a living on the land watered by Kufra’s springs remained behind but the proud Arabs of the Zawiya tribe decided to escape. They had no time to make long preparations or to feed their camels up for a journey over waterless and fodder-less terrain to the South East. Even so, a party estimated to have been five hundred strong including women and children set out in that direction for the Jebel ‘Uwainat, known as ‘the mountain of springs’, on the border of Libya with Egypt and the Sudan.
For some time there had been no rain at ‘Uwainat and whilst there was still water in the main spring, Ain Dua, the vegetation had withered away and the ill prepared camels could find no sustenance. Some groups elected to move on but many succumbed to starvation and perished. Around four hundred Zawiya eventually reached the Dakhla oasis in Egypt having covered more than 400 miles between water sources over arid desert, a feat with few parallels in non mechanised desert travel.
With time the Zawiya returned to Kufra and their numbers grew substantially as did those of the Tebu. During the early years of World War II Kufra became the base of the British Long Range Desert Group which perfected the use of mechanised transport in the Libyan Desert and the wider Sahara.
After the Italian defeat by the British 8th Army, Libya was administered by British and French Military governments until 1952 when it received its independence and the sometime Emir of Cyrenaica, Idris es Senussi, became its king. Oil was found to be abundant below the desert homeland of the Zawiya. The need for imported labour grew and workers from the Sudan and Chad flocked into Libya via the old slave trading routes, but now in motorised transport. Kufra became a hub for migrants. The number of ‘travel agents and vehicle repair shops’ proliferated. Competition for control of the people trafficking and smuggling business grew between the Zawiya and the Tebu.
The water which supplies the Kufra oasis is from the Nubian Sandstone Aquifer System, the world’s largest fossil water aquifer which underlies North Western Sudan, North Eastern Chad, Much of Egypt and some of the South of Libya. One of the notable public works projects funded by revenue from Libya’s oil was to tap the aquifer and pipe fossil water to Benghazi and Tripoli. A centre point irrigation scheme, extracting the fossil water through artisan wells, was also set up near Kufra with the intention of developing a flourishing agriculture, hampered, however, by its remoteness and consequent cost of bringing the fresh produce to market.
Independence came to Libya in 1953 which then became ‘The United Kingdom of Libya’ with the sometime Emir of Cyrenaica, Idris es Senussi as its monarch. The search for oil quickened until the country became a major oil producer. The great wealth which followed attracted numerous economic migrants for sub-Saharan Africa. Many Tebu migrated into Libya from their homeland in the Tibesti Mountains. The Tebu population in Kufra grew apace as did tension between Tebu and Zawiya.
King Idris, always a reluctant monarch, abdicated in 1969 and Muammar Gaddafi mounted a pre-emptive coup whilst the old King’s favoured successors were still abed. His rule, which lasted until 2011, was erratic and autocratic. He stirred up enmity between the Zawiya and the Tebu by means of a classic disinformation ploy. He implied that the Tebu were brought into Kufra by the much hated Italians.
Gaddafi’s grandiose ambitions were directed towards Africa and in particular Chad. Between 1968 and 1987 Gaddafi launched a number of military incursions into Chad and for a while maintained a military occupation of Chadian territory. One of the results was a further increase of Tebu in Kufra. Gaddafi’s forces were roundly defeated in the so called Toyota Wars and left Chad in 1987. One of the cruel outcomes of Gaddafi’s occupation of northern Chad was the large numbers of land mines his forces left behind in the Tebu homelands. They interrupted migratory patterns and made swaths of the country uninhabitable. There followed a further increase in the Tebu population in Kufra. In addition, the uneasy relationship between the Zawiya and the Tebu was exacerbated during Gaddafi’s war with Chad. Since the majority of the Tebu live in Chad those who established in Kufra were perceived to be 5th Columnists
In 2011 the uprising against Gaddafi commenced. France, the UK and the Arab League became involved and matters fared badly for Gaddafi who was forced to employ mercenaries. Many of them were recruited in Chad. Since the Tebu homeland is mainly in the Tibesti mountain region of northern Chad it was an easy propagandist ploy to label all Tebu as mercenaries.
In 2011 the Tebu formed an armed militia called the Desert Shield Brigade and joined the anti-Gaddafi forces. The Zawiya appear to he been divided in loyalty. The Gaddafi regime was toppled and the proliferation of arms from the looting of Gaddafi’s considerable arms dumps has resulted in the breakdown of law and order.
There are now two rival governments in Libya which are in bitter and often armed opposition to each other. Neither has the will nor the wherewithal to control the remote south and consequently old enmities are now pursued with deadly consequences. These reports in the Libya Herald illustrate the point:
Dated 27 July 2015: ‘Despite reports of a ceasefire agreed yesterday in Kufra between Zawia and Tebu fighters, with a promise to hand over prisoners, there has again been heavy fighting in the town today, for the third day in succession. Continued intermittent clashes between the two communities re-erupted into full-scale violence on Friday since when at least 14 people have been killed two dozen wounded.
“Nine Zwai members and five Tebu people have been killed and the number of casualties is over 25, from both communities” Salah Al-Sanussi, a Tebu elder living in Kufra, told the Libya Herald today.
“Mortar and heavy artillery fire is being exchanged and there is absolutely no safe police left,” he said.
Most of the current fighting is around the Tebu district of Gadarfai, which separates the two Zwai areas of Bu-Shoug and Al-Harah, as well as at the Al-Khadrah roundabout in the south of the town.
Tebu fighters are also reported to have fired mortars at the Kufra airport, located at Zwai area of the town, forcing its closure.
A week ago, when five people, including two Bangladeshi workers, were killed in a Zwai-Tebu shootout, the town’s National Security Directorate spokesman warned of rising tension between the two communities. Lieutenant Mohammed Khalil said that the main streets of the town were closed because of sniper activities by both sides and that the Directorate did not have the power to put a stop to the clashes.
Zwai and Tebu elders and other local leaders were trying their best to contain the situation, he said, but it was deteriorating fast………..31 July 2015: Communal clashes in the south-eastern oasis of Kufra have now continued for just over a week, with the government and the Libyan National Army (LNA) still unable to control the conflict.
Tebu-Zwai tit-for-tat killings over the last month once again exploded into bloody armed clashes between the two tribes on Friday last week. In the past couple of days, some 15 people are said to have been killed.’
This is an unfinished story with an unpredictable outcome. The troubles in Kufra are far from over. Both the Tebu and Zawiya are in competition for the lucrative people trafficking, drug and arms smuggling trade centred on Kufra. There are also rumours of foreign interference, particularly from the Sudan. I believe that Ansar Sharia, the Salafist-Jihadist group which has been listed by the USA as a terrorist organisation, has a foothold in Kufra where it seems to control the road to Jalo, and thus of most of the northbound traffic.
Around 17% of Libya’s oil reserves lies in the Zawiya homeland as do the source wells for the Great Man Made River carrying water from the Nubian Sub-Saharan Aquifer to the coastal cities. The Zawiya have sometimes threatened to cut off both of these vital resources.
For more contemporary background this paper is worth reading:
10th September 2105
NOTE – HASSANIEN BEY AND ROSITA FORBES
The achievements of Hassanien Bey who was accompanied by Rosita Forbes on the epic journey to Kufra in 1922 (mentioned above) were overshadowed by Forbes who rushed into print with her book ‘The Secret of the Sahara: Kufra’. Hassanien Bey made a further and more extensive expedition into the Libya Desert. An article about his travels, with photographs of Kufra, Zawiya sheiks and a Tebu woman, appeared in the National Geographic Magazine in September 1924 and may be accessed here.
Update 23rd September 2015
Reports from Kufra on 20th September 2015 suggest that some30 have recently been killed and dozens wounded in fresh fighting and that the town council is threatening to seek foreign help in the absence of support from ether the Tripoli or Beda governments.
‘IT IS TIME TO SELL THE CHILDREN’ – SOME REFLECTIONS ON PEOPLE TRAFFICKING IN LIBYA – UPDATED 9TH JUNE 2016
When drought hits the people of Northern Niger they often say ‘it is time to sell the children’. Sometimes they do just that. It is little wonder that so many people of the Sahel now set out on the long and dangerous journey to Europe where the streets seem to be paved with gold. Many of them travel the old trans-Saharan slave trafficking routes through Libya. There are few people writing about Libyan people trafficking with real experience of living there. Without that experience it is difficult for observers to understand the great distances and physical hazards migrants must overcome to reach the Mediterranean shore and embark on the hazardous sea crossing. Libya is a very large country much of which is inhospitable. I lived and worked there for more than eight years and drove my less than reliable British motor car over its roads. It was in the middle of the last century admittedly. Libya was just then emerging from being one of the poorest countries in the world into oil rich nationhood and Gaddafi was still training in the Royal Libyan Military Academy. Tribes still migrated with their flocks and telephone communication was sparse and intermittent. King Idris was still nominally in charge but he was a reluctant monarch who attempted to abdicate at least twice whilst I was there. I have not driven but have flown over some of the other countries the migrants traverse such as Chad and Niger. From the air the Libyan Desert and the Sahara look forbidding enough but the view through an aircraft widow is a privileged one and not shared by an impoverished migrant riding the roads and tracks in an overloaded Toyota half truck. We have no real data about the number who die on the land leg of their journey but I suspect there are many. The simplest of the long road trips I made regularly was from Tripoli to Tobruk along the old military road constructed by the Italians when they occupied Libya. They built rest stations along the way but in my day these had been abandoned. The last remnant of the Italian colonial way stations was Mamma Rosa’s bar at Ben Juade. Mamma Rosa’s daughter had acquired somewhat overrated popularity born of long periods of life without women amongst those who drove supplies to the oilrigs deep in the hinterland. At Mamma Rosa’s one could purchase a cold drink, admire her daughter and watch camels replenish their capacious water storage organs at the drinking troughs. The distance by road from Tripoli to Tobruk via Misrata, Sirte, Ajdabia, Benghazi and Derna is approximately 1,460 kilometres and the journey should take around 19 hours if you drive without stopping at Libya speeds. Few would attempt to do so, even today. The road was not in good repair in the middle years of the last century when I travelling around Libya. On one notable occasion I was met and summarily forced off the road a few kilometres west of Ajdabia by a motor convoy conveying King Idris from Tripoli to Tobruk. The poor king, who was not in robust health, was so shaken up by the numerous potholes in the road that he caused them to be repaired by a Greek construction company. The Greeks succeeded in replacing the potholes with lumps which were almost as destructive. Land travel in Libya is hazardous for a number of reasons. Libyan drivers are rather reckless and are not keen on being overtaken. Wrecked cars are not uncommon, even on long strait roads. Also it gets very hot indeed during the day in the summer but the temperature dips steeply at night. As I write the temperature in Ajdabia is 40C and is forecast to drop to 23C tonight. High winds can make life very difficult. I drove through a gale whilst near Marsa Brega when the sand blast raised by the wind was so severe it stripped paint off the front of my car and polished its sump to a high shine. Water is not readily available and dehydration can be lethal. Vehicles which overheat are not recommended. A real, but fortunately infrequent, hazard is the hot wind which rolls up from the deep south. These winds are known as Khamseens in Egypt. In Libya they are called Ghiblis and they are formidable and can kill. The sight of a Ghibli as it approached me over the Red Plane west of Benghazi frightened me a great deal. These awful sandstorms suffocate one in dust. There is only one thing to do and that is to stop and sit it out in the hope that one does not dehydrate and that the motor engine will not have seized up with sand when the storm has passed. They can last up to four days and they are hot. Nowadays enterprising militias set up roadblocks to augment their fighting funds and it is fatal for Christian migrants to meet Islamic State fanatics who kill them brutally. Their default method is beheading. Islamic Sate is in control of the city of Sirte on the Tripoli to Benghazi road. I knew the city of Ajdabia well enough. I would stop there on my regular journeys from Benghazi to the developing oil ports on the shores of the Gulf of Sirte. I often ate a late breakfast in one of its cafes of a boiled egg and a cup of very strong and very sweet coffee, known in Libya as ‘Ghid Ghid’. So strong and addictive is ‘Ghid Ghid’ that it may account for the lack of harmony which besets Libya today! It is an interesting town. It has strategic value today because it is here that members of two major Libyan tribes, Al Magharba and Al Zuweya, live in a wary coexistence. The Magharba now exercises a great deal of influence over the oil terminals on the shores of the Gulf of Sirte and the Zuweya tribe’s homeland includes a major section of Libya’s oilfields. It is at Ajdabia that the coastal road from Tripoli now branches in three directions, one branch goes north east across the white and red plains to Benghazi, a second strikes out eastwards across the southern foothills of the Jebel Akhdar, roughly following the old Trig al Abd camel track to Tobruk, and a third takes the hazardous route going SSE in the direction of Kufra and, even further south, to the Jebal Uweinat. This is one of the main roads for people trafficking. The distances are enormous. For example the Jebal Uweinat is around 1,200 kilometres from Ajdabia. Ajdabia is now one of the northern hubs on the people trafficking routs from East Africa and the Horn of Africa via Khartoum and Dongola in the Sudan and Kufra in Libya’s Deep South. From Ajdabia traffickers often take their human cargo westwards to Tripoli to find the fragile and unstable boats in which they are packed to hazard the Mediterranean crossing to Lampedusa, Malta, Sicily and mainland Italy. Kufra is an oasis town which is now Libya’s the south eastern hub for people trafficking. The route through Kufra to Ajdabia is favoured by refugees from Eritrea and Somalia. Data from the International Organization for Migration shows that these two countries are large contributors to the tide of human migration into Southern Europe. Many of the young migrants from Eritrea appear to be escaping military conscription and Somalia has long been a failed state, a veritable model of anarchy. Recently a number of refugees from Syria have been using this route. They are escaping the Syrian misery and finding their way to Turkey from whence they fly to Khartoum and travel thence by land to Kufra. That would be complicated enough but they still have to get to the Mediterranean coast from Kufra and then make the parlous crossing to a European shore. It is a demonstration of the lengths human beings will go to find a future for themselves and their progeny. It is also a demonstration of the firestorm of warfare, religious intolerance, corruption, grinding poverty and racial hatred which blights a great swathe of the Middle East and Africa. For those who make it as far as Kufra the journey to Europe would be hard enough but Libya is a failed state. Civil society is near nonexistent and corruption is rampant. The economy is collapsing as Libyans fight each other, the oil revenue diminishes and trade dries up. The people traffickers are growing ever more callous and brazen. Human trafficking from Libya across the Mediterranean was a $170 million business last year. Some Sudanese traffickers are taking their clients on a new route westward from Dongola and Khartoum to Quatrun and Sebha in the Libya’s Fezzan. Here the migrants from East Africa join those from the Sahel and West Africa who trek eastwards via Bamako in Mali and Naimy, Agadez and Dirku in Niger. This is the route followed by drug smugglers carrying their lethal mind altering chemicals shipped into corrupt West African states by the South American drug cartels. A substantial number of the ‘western’ migrants originate in Mali, Nigeria, Senegal and the Gambia. Once in Quatrun the migrants face a 1057 kilometre road trip to Tripoli before they embark on the lethal sea crossing to Lampedusa, Malta, Sicily or mainland Italy. Libya is shouldering the blame for the tide of economic migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean. There is no doubt that unscrupulous people traffickers are making money out of human misery and that Libya is disintegrating into chaos. The migrants are following tracks made by their ancestors who were sold into slavery by unscrupulous Sultans in Darfur, Wadai and Kano and trafficked across the Sahara. Even today they may see the skeletons of those who were left to die for the desert is slow to recycle bones. It is time to question the resounding silence of the Africa Heads of States from whose lands the tides of migrants have their origin. John Oakes 25th June 2015
BOOKS BY JOHN OAKES For books by John Oakes see… (USA): http://www.amazon.com/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1 ….. (UK): http://www.amazon.co.uk/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1
Update 30th June 2015
From the Libya Herald 28th June 2015:
The EU states also have to contend with the attractive business and economic model of people smuggling. An illegal migrant worker is charged between a low of US$ 1,000 and US$ 3,000 per crossing with some boats carrying up to 700 people. The average Libyan border guard or policeman gets paid US$ 1,000 /month. The lure of people smuggling is very strong and a weak Libyan state, barring a return to dictatorship, will struggle to counter this lure for a few years to come.
Update 9th July 2015
This from Amnesty International can not be ignored:
Update 19th September 2015
A graphic piece about the perils of the land leg of the trans-Saharan migrant journey:
Update 9th June 2016
This is from the Libya Herald and is dated 7th June 2016. It represents the Libyan view about people trafficking:
London, 7 June 2016:
Libya’s Government of National Accord Prime Minister-elect and head of its Presidency Council, Faiez Serraj, has sunk EU policy on illegal migration by refusing to accept migrants picked up at sea back onto Libyan territory.
The news comes as the Libyan Red Crescent updated the number of migrant dead bodies washing up on the Zuwara coast over the last few days to 133.
Speaking over the weekend to a number of media outlets, Serraj rejected a Turkey-style deal with the EU to hold onto illegal migrants and possible refugees in ‘’reception centres’’ in Libya. Serraj said Libya and Turkey were different. Libya would not accept that the EU send them back to Libya to settle.
Serraj criticized the EU saying that bombing boats in the sea would not be the solution to illegal migration. He said that the solution must be found in the migrants’ countries of origin. He insisted that Libya would not allow migrants to use Libya as a transit country, however.
He said that the EU must send illegal migrants back to their home countries, adding that on this issue Libya and the EU were in disagreement.
Backing his Prime Minister-elect, Libya’s GNA Foreign Minister-elect, Mohamed Siala confirmed the position taken on the issue by Serraj. Siala reiterated that Libya would not be accepting back migrants that sailed from Libya.
Siala said that illegal migrants should be returned to their country of origin and not to the country of transit. He said that these had entered Libya illegally. Siala said that if a large number of illegal migrants accumulated in Libya with its relatively small population of over 6 million, they would have a great (negative) effect on Libya’s demographic make-up.
The highly experienced Siala, who had held a number of high governmental positions in the previous Qaddafi regime, including Deputy Foreign Minister, pointed out the existence of a Libyan-Italian agreement which stipulates that any illegal migrants that travel to Libya illegally, without documents or visas, cannot be returned to Libya.
He stressed that this agreement would be implemented.
These latest pronouncements by the UN-backed GNA through its Prime Minister-elect and Foreign Minister-elect will be a big blow to the EU. It completely scuppers EU anti-illegal migration policy in the central Mediterranean based upon installing a pro-EU Libyan government in Tripoli which was expected to agree to a deal on the lines of that struck with Turkey.
The EU had hoped that Libya would either retain most illegal migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean or accept those rescued at sea into ‘’reception centres’’ on Libyan soil.
Meanwhile, international aid agencies such as MSF (Medecins Sans Frontiers) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have been critical of EU policy intentions to return migrants to Libya.
MSF’s UK Executive Director, Vicky Hawkins, told Libya Herald today that “European governments should not be sending people back to Libya”.
“Last year MSF operated three rescue boats in the Mediterranean. 92% of our patients fleeing Libya by boat reported having directly experienced violence in the country, while 100% witnessed extreme violence against refugees and migrants including beatings, murders and sexual violence. No wonder people are trying to flee”.
“All European governments must uphold their legal and moral responsibilities and urgently increase the proper management of refugee claims across Europe. This is the only solution for this crisis that will not lead to an unacceptable level of suffering”, she concluded.
Equally, HRW said that the EU should do less prevention and more search and rescue at sea. It said that the EU should provide safe and legal routes for refugees. It said that ‘’trapping people in detention centres in Libya would expose them to terrible harm”.
It added that ‘‘partnering with Libya on migration would be disastrous. While smugglers bear direct responsibility for sending boats from Libya, European governments share moral and political responsibility’’.
It is worth pointing out to readers that while the issue of illegal migration is very prominent in EU political and media debates, it figures very low on the minds of Libyans and on the internal Libyan political agenda.
Libya is currently suffering a political and economic crises reflected in high foreign exchange rates, high prices and inflation, cash-shortages at banks, late salary payments and high rates of militia-related crime and kidnapping.
As most illegal migrants are loaded onto their boats away from prying eyes, usually after midnight, Libyans get to see very little of the phenomenon at home.
Jamal Adel, in a report in the Libya Herald dated 7th February 2014 writes; ‘A meeting at a Tripoli hotel of elders and tribal leaders from across the country descended into chaos yesterday when remarks by one of them provoked a backlash forcing the delegates to quit for an early lunch.
While the members had gathered in Tripoli to discuss the possibility of a more prominent national role, the meeting was disrupted by raucous heckling when a delegate from the Al-Awageer tribe, the largest tribe in Benghazi, accused his colleagues of various inadequacies.
The attack elicited a strong sense of dissatisfaction among most members and tempers flared to the point that lunch had to be called early. By the time talks resumed at 4:00 it was too late to make any formal decisions.
Beforehand, the head of Tripoli Local Council, Sadat Elbadri, had made opening statements greeting delegates, followed by an announcement of the meeting’s support for the army and police.
The delegate for the south, Abdisslam Ali Khalifa also expressed, at length and without reserve, his gratitude to Zintani and Misratan revolutionaries for restoring peace to Sebha after recent tribal violence.’
It might be interesting to use this excellent report to look briefly at the influence tribes exert in the struggle for power in post Gaddafi Libya. Before embarking on a discussion of the points raised I offer this as a working hypothesis. ‘Whilst 80% or more Libyans now live in towns and cities the influence of its historic Arab tribes is still significant but tends to be divisive.’ Secondly I suggest that the security of Libya and her near neighbours is threatened by the minority rights issues raised by indigenous Tebu, Tuareg and Berber people. Thirdly I argue that the Eastern (Cyrenaican) cites of Benghazi and Derna are the intellectual centres of militant religiosity supported by forces outside Libya and fourthly I would note that Southern Libya, long known as the Fezzan, is now perilously out of control. The consequence of this is that the trans-Saharan routes through the Libyan oasis staging posts and hubs, such as Sebha and Kufra, attract illegal trade in arms, drugs and people. The battle for control of Sebha and Kufra and the illegal trade they attract is largely between the Tebu people and Arab tribes – the Sway in Kufra and the Awlad Suleiman and its allies in Sebha.
The aristocratic Arab tribes of Libya are perceived to have descended from the Beni Hillal and Beni Sulaim, two tribes from the Nejd, now part of Saudi Arabia, which migrated through Egypt into Libya in the 11th Century. Anyone who can successfully claim descent from them is a nobleman or Hurr by birth. These pure Arab Bedouin tribes displaced the indigenous Berbers and settled mainly, though not solely, in Eastern Libya and founded the nine Saadi tribes one of which is the Awaqir. They pressed onwards and some of their descendants can be found in Sothern Libya. The Awlad Sulieman is one such tribe which has its homeland (wattan) in the Fezzan (Southern Libya) and in neighbouring Chad.
BENGHAZI – TRIBES AND JIHADISTS
The delegate from the Awaqir tribe mentioned in Jamal Adel’s report appears to have torpedoed the conference of tribal leaders and elders by expressing his frustration at considerable length. I and my family owe a great deal to one of the leading families of the Awaqir and I can empathise with the delegate’s anger whilst feeling somewhat embarrassed by his efforts. The Awaqir tribe is one of the nine aristocratic Saadi tribes which were influential during the reign of King Idris but stripped of their power by Gaddafi. It holds extensive lands to the south and west of Benghazi. It is a complex and multiethnic tribe, some braches of which were semi nomadic pastoralists and some more sedentary.
When the oil boom began in the 1950s Awaqir tribe members migrated from their homelands into Benghazi to find employment, living at first in makeshift huts on the outskirts. As employment increased the rough huts were improved with corrugated iron and Benghazi’s ‘Tin Towns’ came onto being. Gradually the tin huts were replaced by permanent buildings but tribal and sub-tribal ties were maintained in the new neighbourhoods of Gaddafi’s Benghazi, a city he disliked intensely.
This movement from the traditionally tribal hinterland into the burgeoning cites accelerated as Libya developed a society which derived most of its wealth from oil. Nowadays at least 80% of the population lives in the coastal cities supplied with abundant water from the fossil aquifers below the Libyan Desert and the Sahara via the Great Man Made River.
Benghazi presents us with an interesting case study. The fall of Gaddafi has been followed by a severe breakdown in security in Benghazi and by the rise therein of Jihadist and Salafist militias. Benghazi and Derna, the coastal city to its north east, are said to be the intellectual centres of the fiercely religious Islamist factions with Al Qaeda contacts and deriving much of their support from external sources. It is said that these two cities draw aspiring jihadists from Libya’s neighbours for indoctrination and motivation. It is this militant religiosity, long suppressed by Gaddafi, which is now one of the major wrecking factors in Libya today. Killings and abductions are now commonplace in the Benghazi. It will be recalled that a US ambassador was killed there and the culprits appear to remain above the law. In the present climate of discord in Benghazi no judge would hazard his life to preside over the trail of the ambassador’s killers
No doubt the raucous Awaqir leader described by Jamal Adel was voicing his frustration with the central government which has, so far, been unable to restore order and the rule of law. He may have also harboured some anger because the Awaqir has not been included in the higher reaches of the post Gaddafi government despite intensive lobbying.
MISRATA AND ZINTAN – TWO POWERFUL TRIBES AND THE STRUGGLE FOR POWER IN LIBYA.
From Jamal Adel’s piece above we read of Abdisslam Ali Khalifa’s profuse thanks to the revolutionaries (Thuwars) of Zintan and Misrata. This highlights the fact that tribal and clan allegiances are very strong in both cities. Firstly the cities and tribes bear the same name and have developed formidable armed forces which are largely independent of the state. In Misrata, Libya’s third largest city, fierce independence, a mercantile and martial spirit and civic cohesion have long been characteristic. The battle between Gaddafi’s forces and the rebels in Misrata was brutal. The battle hardened Misratan revolutionary militias are relatively well organised and disciplined. They have recently been called into Tripoli to forestall a coup and have been involved in the taming the powerful Warfella tribe, their traditional enemy to the south, which was said to harbour Gaddafi loyalists – and may still do so. The Misratan militias are said to favour the Moslem Brotherhood’s somewhat theocratic Justice and Construction Party in the current Libyan General National Congress (GNC).
The city of Zintan has a long tribal tradition. There are, in fact, two tribes in Zintan, one of which is Arab and the other Berber. Long practice of cooperation in the ‘Shura’ (the council of tribal elders) has assured strong local government and strengthened the Zintani’s. They have acquired large quantities of Gaddafi’s abandoned arms and developed considerable military clout. Gaddafi’s second son, Saif al Islam Gaddafi, remains in prison in Zintan awaiting trial, officially until the rule of law and the judiciary are restored in Libya, but more likely as a ‘hostage of influence’. The Zintani’s also maintain a strong military presence in Tripoli in order to safeguard their influence over the shaky coalition currently struggling to govern Libya. Whilst stable local government exists in Zintan there have been armed clashes with the neighbouring Mashasha tribe over a land rights dispute which has its origins in Gaddafi’s arbitrary redistribution of tribal land. The Zintani militias are said to favour Mahmoud Jibril al Warfelli’s more pragmatic National Forces Alliance in the GNC.
SABHA – TRIBAL AND RACIAL DISCORD
The modern town of Sebha has developed from the three oasis settlements of Jedid, Quatar and Hejer and now houses a population of around 200,000. It is the seat of the Saif al Nasr family, the most prominent and revered leaders of the Awlad Sulieman tribe and its historic allies and clients. The Saif al Nasr family gained heroic status in its wars with their Ottoman Turk overlords in the early 19th century and with the Italian colonists in the early 20th Century.
Gaddafi’s father migrated from Sirte to Sebha to take menial employment with the Saif al Nasr family, something which his son was said to resent. Gaddafi attended secondary school in Sebha and staged his first anti government demonstration as a school boy in the city. He also held a demonstration in the lobby of a hotel owned by the Saif al Nasr family, thus ensuring his expulsion from school. The relationship between Sebha and Gaddafi was ambiguous!
The Saif al Nasr family and the Awlad Suleiman tribe it led were the dominate force in Sebha and in much of the Fezzan throughout the Ottoman Turkish regency (1551 – 1911), the Italian colonial period (1911 – 1943), the short period (1943 – 1951) of French military government after WWII and the Kingdom of Libya (1951 -1969). During the forty or so years of the Gaddafi era the dominance in the Fezzan of the Awlad Suleiman was reversed in favour of his own tribe, the Gaddadfa and that of his closest supporters, the Maqarha tribe. This process has been dubbed ‘tribal inversion’ by Jason Pack and his colleges writing in their book ‘The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future’. This book is essential reading but somewhat expensive.
Apart from a number of so called al Ahali, the name given to long time town dwellers, Sebha offers a home to people from other tribes such as the Gaddadfa, Muammar Gaddafi’s tribe, which is based near Sirte but ranges south towards Sebha. There are also colonies of the Maqarha from the Wadi Shati to the north, the Awlad Abu Seif and the Hasawna tribe who, in the past, were the true nomads of the south and allies of the Awlad Suleiman.
There is one district of Sebha which has been a source of discord for some time. It is the Tauri district which is colonised by some Tuareg and many Tebu. The Tebu people are part of a wider ethnic group called the Teda, desert warriors living in the eastern and central Sahara and, effectively, a black people without nationality. The majority of them can be found in the Tibesti Mountains on the Libyan-Chad border. Their harsh environment, extreme poverty, and remote location make them a very tough people. They have often clashed with the neighboring tribes and with the Tuareg and, like the gypsies in Great Britain, are despised by the dominant communities who see them as petty thieves and liars.
Traditionally, the Teda controlled the caravan trade routes that passed through their territory. They were widely known in the past for plundering and salve trading. Their language is Tebu and their basic social unit is the nuclear family, organized into clans. They live by a combination of pastoralism, farming, subsistence smuggling and date cultivation.
Since the fall of Gaddafi, Tebu militias have come to dominate the South and Libya’s borders with Chad and Niger. They are perceived by the majority of the inhabitants of Sebha to be non Libyans trying to control the city. In particular they now dominate the majority of the trade (legal and illicit) routes between Sebha and the Chad basin. Thus they have a firm grip on the regional arms and drug trade and on people trafficking. The Awlad Suleiman tribesman may still have their own trade routes in this area but perceive the Tebu to be a foreign and ethnically inferior threat to their historic dominance of the region.
There is a great deal of racism in Libya where the white Arab majority dispise black Africans. This may well stem from the trans-Saharan slave trading era which was still active in Benghazi until 1911. There are now thousands of black Africans incarcerated in Libya’s prisons and brutal reprisals were taken by some rebel militia against black Africans who may or may not have been Gaddafi’s mercenaries during the 2011 rebellion.
The Tebu make common cause with the Tuareg and the Berbers of the Jebel Nefusa in efforts to have their rights enshrined in the new Libya constitution currently under consideration.
The Libya Herald report quoted above tells us that Zintani and Misratan Militias were largely responsible for restoring a fragile peace in the Sothern city of Sebha. This from the Libya Herald datelined Tripoli, 12 January 2014 gives us some insight into events there;
‘Fighting eased today in Sebha, but not sufficiently for a newly-arrived team of mediators to begin the process of defusing the conflict between Tebu tribesmen and members of the Awlad Sulieman clan.
According to Ayoub Alzaroug of Sebha local council, 21 people have now died and 45 have been wounded, some of them seriously, in four days of fighting. Alzaroug told the Libya Herald that today the situation was “relatively calm” compared with the past three days.
According to one local resident, Tebu fighters now control some strategic areas within the city and around the airport, as well as occupying several compounds used by the Awlad Sulieman clan .
Members of the Western region mediation committee, which includes representative from Tripoli, Misrata, Zintan and the Jebel Nafusa reached the city this morning, but could not begin their work because of concerns for their safety.’
This and other reports make it clear that the mediators were called in by Ali Zeidan, the Libyan prime minister, to settle a bitter and lethal series of inter-tribal and inter-racial skirmishes which have left many dead and wounded in Sebha. The armed clashes had become so intense that Gaddafist forces drawn, I believe, from the Gaddadfa and Maqarha tribes, took the opportunity to take control of an important air base close to Sebha and spark off Gaddafist hopes of a restoration of the dread regime under the leadership of Gaddafi’s playboy son Al Saadi Gaddafi who, as I write, has arrived in Tripoli having been extradited from Niger.
GADDAFIST ‘ALGAE’ MAKE A FLEETING APPERNCE
The Gaddafist hopes were raised further by a sympathetic uprising of factions of the Warsifana tribe in the immediate neighbourhood of Tripoli. The uprising was quelled by militias who, with typical Libyan irony, refer to the Warsifana tribe as ‘algae’ because of their long allegiance to Gaddafi and his Green Flag.
The Small Arms Survey ‘Dispatch No 3’ dated February tells us of the late dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s support from the tribes of Sothern Libya. Unless the Libya government is able to project civil and military power into the region very soon it will face losing control completely. A key paragraph is quoted here:
‘The Qaddafi era’s legacies weigh heavily on southern Libya, which had been the regime’s main stronghold along with Sirte, Bani Walid, and Tarhuna. The communities in the region were among the main recruitment bases for the regime’s security battalions and intelligence services. Key units were based on particular tribal constituencies:
• The Maghawir Brigade, based in Ubari, was made up exclusively of recruits from Tuareg tribes of Malian and Nigerien origin.
• The Tariq bin Ziyad Brigade, also based in Ubari, was dominated by Qadhadhfa and Awlad Suleiman.
• The Faris Brigade, based in Sabha, was recruited from Qadhadhfa, Warfalla, Awlad Suleiman, and Tubu.
• The Sahban Brigade, based in Gharyan, was led by Maqarha.’
The many facets of this series of armed disputes are not easy to resolve unless we understand that the tribes which were dominant in Libya during the reign of King Idris (1951 – 1969) were superseded by Gaddafi’s own tribe, the Gaddadfa, which was considered to by many to be Marabtin, that is a client tribe and thus inferior. Some call the Gaddadfa an Arabized Berber tribe but I suspect that it may have originated as a faction which broke off from the greater Warfella tribe at some time in the distant past. In any event it is clear that the Awlad Suleiman are attempting to reassert their historic dominance though the suspicion lingers that they are also vying for control of the lucrative illegal trade routes with the Tebu.
TRIPOLI AND THE FALL OF ALI ZEIDAN
We might legitimately ask why Prime Minister Ali Zeidan called upon Zintani and Misratan forces to intervene in this dispute rather than the National Army. There may be two answers to the question. The first is disconcertingly significant. The army Chief of Staff Jadallah Al-Obaidi refuses to take orders from Ali Zeidan. He may also feel that the still ‘embryonic’ National Army is not yet capable of deploying sufficient force 476 road miles to the south and lacks the training to intervene in civil disputes.There are disturbing signs today (10th March 2014) of a rift between the Chief of Staff and the government. Second, the General National Congress has today sacked Ali Zeidan from his post as Prime Minster and replaced him temporarily with Defence Minister Abdullah Al-Thinni, whose reputation for dealing with the troubles in the South is encouraging. We will see.
Readers looking for an in depth analysis of the role of tribes in Libya might find this helpful:
11th March 2014
For books by John Oakes see… (USA): http://www.amazon.com/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1 ….. (UK): http://www.amazon.co.uk/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1
Update 24th March 2014
There is still unrest in Sebha it seems.
‘Speaking in Brussels, Michael Mann, the spokesman for EU High Representative for foreign affairs Catherine Ashton, said on Friday that the EU was concerned about the use of force by armed groups against [Libyan] state institutions, including the illegal seizure of energy facilities. He said that the EU had noted the declaration of a Cyrenaican government. It hoped that these issues could be resolved peacefully.’ (Libya Herald Tripoli 12 January 2014)
As I write these words (11th January 2014) Libya’s oil production is rising for the first time in 10 months. The oil fields in the vicinity of Obari in south west Libya are now reported to be on stream again and feeding crude oil to the Zawiya refinery and oil terminal 50 kilometres west of Tripoli.
The Obari/al-Sharara oil fields have been closed for since 28th October 2013 by more than 1,500 protesters. It has been difficult at this distance to work out what was their main grievance but it seems likely that the old, and unelected, Obari local council had refused to give way to allow a properly elected body to take over. I also believe the old council may have retained its allegiance to Gaddafi for too long. There has been an additional problem. Obari is a Tuareg town and there are about 14,000 Kel Ajjer Tuareg families who live there with no Libyan ID numbers and thus with no access to state benefits. The Kel Ajjer Tuaregs believe themselves to be the genuine inhabitants of the district and complain of racial discrimination. Some of them appear to have added their weight to the protest and helped to shut down the oil fields in the hope of redressing this anomaly.
The problem of ‘federalism’ is growing in Libya’s remote South West. This was the old province of The Fezzan, one of the three historic Libyan provinces, which existed until the government of King Idris passed the constitutional amendment of 1963 abolishing the federal system in favour of a unified government. Dissatisfaction with the post Gaddafi government resulted in the appearance in September 2013 of a putative National Council of the Fezzan chaired by one Aboazom Al Lafi.
The blockade of oil facilities is more acute, and still continues, in the old province of Cyrenaica, known now as Eastern Libya. It is here that three major oil terminals have been paralysed by the very persons employed to guard them. This strange but disconcerting business is summed up in the words of Libya’s prime minster, Dr. Zeidan, when in December 2013 he stated; ‘We are producing oil at perhaps a fifth of our capacity and are carrying out some limited exporting operations. The issue is that the guards [the Petroleum Facilities Guard] who were assigned to protect the oil facilities betrayed their homeland and seized control of the facilities.’
Dr. Zeidan is here referring to the increasingly powerful figure, Ibrahim Jadhran, sometime eastern commander of Petroleum Facilities Guard. Jadhran has become the leader of the self-styled Political Bureau of Cyrenaica base in Ajdabia. He has assembled and sworn in a cabinet of 24 members and threatened to recruit and train a Cyrenaican Defence Force, similar to that which maintained King Idris in power during the 1950’s I presume.
For those readers coming anew to this story it should be said that the Petroleum Facilities Guard is recruited from armed militias or Thuwars initially formed to fight the Gaddafi regime and so far not yet disbanded. They are not regular soldiers or policemen and they owe their loyalty to their leader not, as do regular police or soldiers, to the state. That is why Dr. Zeidan calls them militiamen.
To further his aims Jadhran and his people have gained control of the three oil terminals in the Gulf of Sirte (aka Gulf of Sidra), namely Al-Sidra, Ras Lanuf and Zueitina and formed his own company, the Libyan Oil and Gas Corporation. In a recent TV address he said that this new organisation would have a temporary home in Tobruk, before moving to Benghazi at a later date.
To counter this, the Libyan government has declared force majeure and stated that it will use force to stop any ship intending to trade with Jadhran’s company. On Monday 6th January 2014 the Libya navy fired on a North Korean flagged vessel presumed to be on its way to take on crude oil from one of the ports under Jadhran’s control. The vessel escaped but the use of force by Dr. Zeidan’s government marked a step change in his policy of persuasion and negotiation and may mark the beginning of the end to the oil port blockades.
This by Ahmed Elumami which appeared in the Libya Herald on 24th October 2013 is worth reading in this context:
‘Federalists announced a government for Cyrenaica today. Consisting of a prime minister, deputy prime minister and 24 other ministers, it is viewed as largely the creation of Ibrahim Jadhran, the former Petroleum Facilities Guard commander who is leading the eastern oil terminals blockade and who was elected as head of the self-proclaimed Cyrenaica Council’s Political Bureau on 17 August.
It was Jadhran who named Abdraba Abdulhameed Al-Barasi to be Cyrenaica’s “prime minister” three weeks ago and who today said that the announcement of the government was two days late but that “we fulfilled our promise of a new regional government”.
Barasi [who was a Libyan Air Force officer] said that the reason for the move was because the central authorities “have failed and have shown incompetence and corruption”. They were not to be trusted anymore, he said. Also, Cyrenaica had suffered systematic negligence. His “government”, he declared, took its legitimacy and legal status from the 1951 Kingdom of Libya constitution ¬(which, in fact was amended in 1963, and the three-state federal makeup was replaced by a United Kingdom of Libya with 10 regions.’
So far Dr. Zeidan’s government has been unable to exploit the possible discord between the two powerful figures in the federalist movement in East Libya, Ibrahim al Jadhran and Libya’s oldest political prisoner and a cousin of the former King Idris, Ahmed al Zubair al Senussi, who are divided over the vision for the future of the federalist movement. Mr Senussi was the figure-head of the ‘Barqa Conference’, a largely tribal gathering, which met on 6th March 2012 and declared regional autonomy for Cyrenaica. The initiative failed but al-Senussi has reportedly condemned the recourse to arms by Jadhran. There does not seem to be much unanimity amongst federalists.
There Marsa Hariga oil terminal in Tobruk, near the Egyptian border in Eastern Libya, has also been blockaded for some time and there are signs that it may be reopening very soon. I suspect that the notables of Tobruk are less enamoured of Jadhran and his cronies and are likely to take their own line in this dispute. There does not appear to be a single focus of discontent in Tobruk.
The historical background to the ‘federalist’ movement may not be readily available Libya so I have taken the liberty of offering the following notes as a quick guide. They are taken from those I made when writing my book ‘Libya’ published in 2011 by the History press in UK.
BACKGOUND NOTES ON THE FEDRALIST MOVEMENT IN POST GADDAFI LIBYA
Libya is rich in the ruins of ancient Roman and Greek cities. In the south there are signs of an ancient African civilisation which the Romans called the Garamantes.
Even when these civilizations were at the height of their powers they were mostly separated by geographical barriers. The west was Roman, the east was Greek and the south African. The three Libyan provinces of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and the Fezzan, which arose amongst the remains of these civilisations, were influenced by their ancient predecessors.
In 643 the Muslim general Amir ibn el ‘As invaded Cyrenaica and soon afterwards, Tripolitania. Uqba bin Nafi moved towards Fezzan in 663AD and took Germa. Afterwards, Libya was no longer part of the Dar al Harb – the House of War – but part of the Islamic world, the Dar al Islam.
After 1050 AD two true Arab Bedouin tribes from the Nejd migrated belligerently into Libya and largely pushed the Berber inhabitants into the Jebel Nefusa. They were the Beni Sulaim and the Beni Hilal. Their descendants followed their customs and way of life in Libya until recently and they still exert great influence.
The descendants of the Beni Sulaim are still spread over a large area in Egypt and Tunisia. There are two tribes which claim descent from them in Tripolitania. However, those occupying modern Cyrenaica founded nine famous aristocratic Bedouin tribes. These nine, the so called Sa’adi tribes, are divided into two branches, the Jibarna and the Harabi.
The Jibarna tribes are the ‘Awaquir, the Magharba, the Abid and the Arafa. The Harabi are the Abaidat, the Hasa, the Fayid, the Bara’asa and the Darsa. These nine tribes have pushed out a number of other Beni Sulaim, such as the Aulad Ali, who now occupy much of the Western Desert of Egypt.
The Sa’adi tribe were favoured by King Idris between 1951 and 1969 when Gaddafi’s coup thrust his own tribe, the Gaddadafa and the neighbouring tribes, the Magarha and the Warfella into predominance. The loss of power has been a festering source of discontent amongst the Sa’adi tribes. As John Wright pointed out in a kindly review of my book some time ago the Sa’adi tribes look down on the Gaddadfa as an Arabised Berber tribe.
By the end of the sixteenth century much of the Islamic world was under Ottoman Turkish domination. Tripoli fell to the corsair Dragut in 1551 and remained in Turkish hands, along with the rest of Libya, until 1911. Tripoli has always tended to be a city state and though its influence, and sometimes rule, extended to other coastal towns, it was rarely able to dominate the interior.
The Italians colonised Libya from 1911 to 23rd January 1943 when the British General Bernard Montgomery, at the head of the victorious 8th Army, entered the undefended city of Tripoli. For the Libyans this day marked the beginning of the end of a foreign occupation of notable brutality.
Despite losing the war, the Italians remained the lawful colonial power in Libya. At the Potsdam Conference in 1945, Britain, the USA and the USSR decided that the Italian colonies captured during the war would not be returned to her. What to do with Libya became a problem which was not solved until independence in 1951.
As the Great Powers wrangled about what to do, the cold war began to dictate the outcome. To Britain, France and Italy, countries with an early interest in Libya, were now added the USA and USSR. Unanimity was difficult to achieve between them. The Libyan people of the three provinces were of different minds about their aims. In the end they settled for a compromise because the alternatives on offer were undesirable. This meant that there was no sense of national identity in the newly independent Libya to catch the imagination of the people and drive them forward.
The compromise was this. Libya was to be a federal, constitutional, hereditary monarchy. The sometime Amir of Cyrenaica, El Sayyid Muhammad Idris bin Muhammad al-Mahdi as-Senussi, was chosen as King. There was to be a bi-cameral parliament. The House of Representatives was to be wholly elected, one deputy for every 20,000 male inhabitants, and the upper house, the Senate, was to be partially elected and partially appointed by the King. However, both parliament and the King could initiate legislation.
Parliament was to supply and appoint federal government ministers, who were to be responsible for foreign affairs and defence. The King was empowered to dismiss them. As a compromise, reached after fierce arguments, there were to be two capitals, Tripoli and Benghazi.
The three provinces were each to be governed by a Wali (governor) appointed by the King and answerable to an elected Legislative Council based in their respective capitals, Tripoli, Benghazi and Sebha. In each province there was also to be an Executive Council, appointed by the King on the advice of the Walis.
This arrangement led to a proliferation of bureaucracy and to endless disputes between provincial governments. The federal government was also hamstrung. It was forced to work from two capitals and with three provincial governments widely separated by geography and temperament and bedevilled by intermittent telephone services. There were no telephone services at all with the towns in the Fezzan. The two capitals were more than five hundred miles apart – a long way even in a powerful motor car as I was to find out for myself.
On 12th April 1959 Esso made a major strike in the Zelten field, a hundred miles or so south of the coast of the Gulf of Sirte. The company built a pipeline through the desert and a big oil port at Marsa Brega. In the autumn of 1961 the company started pumping good oil into the Esso Canterbury, the first of their large oil tankers to load in Libya. Others were queuing up behind her in the Gulf of Sirte. There was a huge quantity of oil under the desert. The oil terminal at Es Sidra was opened in 1962 and at Ras Lanuf in 1964.
King Idris had been under pressure for a long time to ditch the federal system in favour of a unitary government. The advent of oil made it impetrative but difficult to achieve in practice. Most of the oil was found in Cyrenaica and this evened up the balance of power between the provinces. The King was finally persuaded that the government, under pressure to spend the oil revenues effectively would work better if Libya abandoned the federal system. Consequently a constitutional amendment of 1963 abolished the federal formula and brought in a unified state apparatus. The power of the national government was enhanced and the provincial legislative assemblies, bureaucracies and judicial systems were disbanded.
On 1st September 1969 Gaddafi seized power in Libya. He was soon to abolish the old provincial names. Cyrenaica became East Libya, Tripolitania West Libya and the Fezzan South Libya.
For more than 40 years Gaddafi’s neglect of Benghazi in particular and East Libya as a whole was almost vindictive. That is one of the main reasons why Benghazi was the cradle of the revolution in February 2011. There are other reasons of course such as his withdrawal of patronage from the Sa’adi tribes in favour of his own Gaddadfa and its allies and also the rise of militant Islam which still is still a debilitating factor in Benghazi and Derna.
It is also significant that the old province of Cyrenaica largely aligned itself with the anti Gaddafi forces in February 2011 and was mostly untouched by the vicious fighting which devastated the towns around the Gulf of Sirte.
The weakness of the transitional government in Tripoli has led to frustration in the old provinces and the rise of federalism which has gained some tribal support.
CAN THE GOVERNMENT OF ALI ZEIDAN ASSERT CONTROL OVER THE AL SIDRA, RAS LANUF AND ZUEITINA OIL TERMINALS?
Al Zeidan has very few options open him at the moment. He is hamstrung by the constant threat of a vote of no confidence in the General National Assembly which has not yet materialised but rumbles on like indigestion.
The Libyan Army is, as yet, untrained and untested and I doubt its ability to make a successful raid on the three ports to remove Jadhran’s men.
Even if the army was capable of mounting a raid the political climate may not be favourable. A meeting of tribal chiefs and federalists was held in Benghazi on 21st December 2013. The Libya Herald carried this on 22nd December;
‘Tribal chiefs and supporters of federalism have warned the government, Congress and the Libya Revolutionaries Operations Room (LROR) that they will not stand aside if force is used to end the closure of the eastern oil terminals. They also insisted that Cyrenaica would export oil independently of the NOC
At a meeting in Benghazi yesterday, Cyrenaica tribal elders and federalism activists said that any action or threat of action against the region or those who were “protecting” its ports and oil fields would be considered an assault on the people of Cyrenaica as a whole.’
Dr. Zeidan can deny trade to Jadhran’s oil company as we have seen when the Libyan Navy turned a North Korean registered ship away by force. However, Jadhran can continue to blockade the ports as long as he retains the loyalty of his armed militiamen. In this regard Dr. Zeidan has an ally in the form of the elders of Jedhran’s own tribe, the Moghrabi.
On 12th December 2013 the Libyan Embassy in London posted this news;
‘Tribal leaders have brokered a deal with the head of the Political Bureau of Cyrenaica, Ibrahim Jadhran, bringing to an end the federalist movement’s blockade of three eastern oil terminals.
Elders from the Moghrabi tribe entered into talks with figures from the federalist movement ten days ago in efforts to bring to a close the deadlock over the oil export terminals. Many of the tribe’s members have supported Jedhran, although they have been seen to be doing so for their own purposes.
The leader of the eastern tribe, Saleh Lataiwish, said that its members had responded to calls for the necessary reopening of the terminals. He said that the tribe had held meetings to discuss with “their sons” an end to the actions at Sidra, Ras Lanuf and Zueitina ports. The blockade is set to be lifted this weekend’
The initiative failed but it may be possible to starve Jadhran of support from the Maghrabi tribe whose homeland forms the hinterland to the three ports.
11th to 15th January 2014
UPDATE 17TH JANUARY 2014
These two pieces in the Libya Herald show clearly the problems faced by the Libyan government;
UPDATE 2nd March 2014
Whilst this report from the Libya Herald does not seem, at first sight, to fit into piece about Libya Federalism I have placed it here for a good reason. It concerns the early moves by a Libyan Army General, Haftar, to emulate Field Marshal Sisi in Egypt and take control of the country. He comes from Ajdabia and has some support in Cyrenaica where the people are becoming oppressed by Jihadist militias. It is a story worth following, especially in that he has some support from National Army officers.
This also is worth noting. It affirms, in my opinion, that the Federalist movement is strongest in Cyrenaica. There are some notable personalities mentioned in this piece:
UPDATE 13th March 2014
ALI ZEIDAN IS DEPOSED OVER HIS FAILURE TO DEAL WITH THE OIL PORT TAKE OVER
Ali Zeidan was deposed as Libya’s Prime Minster by a vote in the general National Congress on the 10t March and replaced by Defence Minister Abdullah Thinni. The reason given was that he failed to end the occupation of the Sirte oil ports. Ali Zeidan has since left the country despite a travel ban placed on him by the Attorney General, Abdel Qadar Radwan. The travel ban was issued to allow an investigation into Dr Zeiadn’s part in the alleged payment in September last year of bribes to Ibrahim Jadran, the leader of the Federalists blockading the Sirte oil terminals.
According to today’s Libya Herald:
‘Ibrahim Jadhran, the self-styled leader of the federalists occupying the ports, accused GNC Energy Committee head Naji Mukhtar and the government of trying to bribe him with LD 30 million to end the blockade in September last year.
Zeidan denied any involvement but Mukhtar admitted giving a number of cheques to one of Jadhran’s brothers Salem. He said that these could not be considered bribery because the accounts held insufficient funds for them to be honoured. One cheque for LD2.5 million was, however, reportedly cashed.’
Read more: http://www.libyaherald.com/2014/03/12/former-prime-minister-ali-zeidan-did-not-run-away-from-libya-thinni/#ixzz2vq6oBDdZ
An oil tanker, The Morinng Glory, took on a load of crude at one of Jadhran’s ports and has escaped the attention of the Libyan Navy to be sighted off the coast of Egypt today. Jadhran is reported to have said that another tanker is about to arrive for loading soon.
The eastern oil port of Tobruk is under force majeure again today (26th March 2014):
There are a number of prominent Islamists in the old Libyan province of Cyrenaica, now East Libya. They caused the Gaddafi regime considerable trouble and they have been influential in post-Gaddafi Libya. I argue, though they may profoundly disagree, that they are the heirs to the Islamic Senussi order which exercised a profound influence over the nine Sa’adi tribes of Cyrenaica and supplied the first King of Libya, Sayyid Idris al Senussi, when Libya achieved independence. Without some small knowledge of the Senussi’s and their influence on East Libya much of what is now happening there is not readily understood. There follows a very short introduction to the Senussi Order. There are but few books on the subject. The reader may find Rosita Forbes’ eyewitness account in her book ‘The Secret of the Sahara: Kufra’ interesting reading. What follows is taken from a draft for my book ‘Libya – The History of Gaddafi’s Pariah State’ and is out of context but I hope it proves a useful introduction.
During the Ottoman period, the Sufi Senussi Order was established in Libya. In 1842 the Algerian born Islamic scholar and missionary, Sayyid Muhammad ibn ‘Ali Senussi, found himself by chance, taking up residence in Cyrenaica [East Libya], near the ruins of the ancient Greek city of Cyrene. There he found, living amongst the native Bedouin, a number of holy men known as the Marabtin b’il Baraka. Like them, Sayyid Muhammad was an Arabic speaking Sunni Muslim, familiar with Bedouin life. There was also a flourishing cult of saints, the Marabtin, in Cyrenaica and tribes adjusted their annual migration to spend regular periods near the tomb of their patron saint. These tombs are often small square white structures topped by a dome. In my day, one such could be seen from the road from Benghazi to Benina airport with the tents of a visiting section of the al Awaqir tribe pitched nearby. Therefore the Bedouin found nothing unusual when, in 1843, Sayyid Muhammad, known as the Grand Senussi, and his disciples founded a Senussi lodge or ‘Zawia’ at Baida on the central Cyrenaican plateau.
The new lodge was situated at a point where the territories of three important tribes met. Probably the best way to describe a Senussi lodge is an Islamic seminary and community centre. It was made up of a mosque, classrooms, store rooms and living quarters for the head and for the brothers of the order. Senussi lodges were self-sufficient and needed land and water to support the residents and their visitors. In order to attract a lodge into their territory, local tribes had to give up some of their productive wells and arable land to support it. It was, thus, an important step because good land and reliable wells were precious resources in Cyrenaica and not often surplus to requirements.
This is how it worked in practice. When a few tribes applied for a lodge, they received a visit from a member of the Senussi family. Important visitors were always entertained to a feast and displays of wealth. By observing the interplay of personalities and their relative wealth, the Senussi visitor was able to spot the paramount sheik and areas of surplus wealth. They then set up their lodge under his protection and it was he who negotiated their title to arable land and grazing rights. The lodge was constructed where there is sufficient surplus acreage and water and was protected by the most powerful sheik amongst the tribes.
Under pressure from the Ottomans the Grand Senussi moved from Baida to Azziyat. In 1856 Said Ibn Ali founded a Zawia at Jaghbub which was to become a ‘university’ for the Senussi brotherhood. Jaghbub is situated around 280 kilometres south east of Tobruk. It is close to the Libya’s border with Egypt and with Siwa, the oasis town in the Egyptian Western Desert. As an oasis Jaghbub is not well endowed with palm trees and the water is brackish. At first sight it does not seem a promising place for the Grand Senussi to establish his headquarters. However, it was strategically placed amongst feuding tribes which he wished to pacify and convert and its proximity to Siwa was important.
Said Ibn Ali lived for six years in Jaghbub from whence he contiuued his missionary work. He died in 1859 and was buried in a tomb over which rose the kubba of Jaghbub. (According to reports Colonel Gaddafi ordered the destruction of the tomb and had The Grand Senussi’s mortal remains scattered.)
From Jaghbub Said Ibn Ali allied himself with the Zuwaya tribe, whose home is the oasis of Kufra still further to the south. The tribe offered The Grand Senussi one third of its holdings in the Kurfa Oasis if he would establish a lodge there. He commissioned a famous follower called Sidi Omar Bu Hawa to go to Kufra and establish a Zawiah at Jof and to begin missionary work. The Zuwaya traded across the dessert as far south as Chad, Wadai, Darfur and Kano and as far north as Ajadabia. The Grand Senussi’s followers travelled with the Zuwaya trading caravans to establish their missionary lodges.
In the late nineteenth century, the time was ripe for a new burst of missionary energy and the Grand Senussi was so successful that, within his lifetime, a vast theocratic empire was established. It was a missionary empire which stretched westwards into Tripolitania, eastwards into Saudi Arabia and the Western Desert of Egypt and southwards into the oasis towns of the Sahara.
Islamic orders are a way of life. One of the better known is the Wahhabi of Saudi Arabia, but there are many others. Their aim is to achieve a complete identification with God by means of contemplation, charity, living apart from the everyday world and performing religious exercises. For the Senussi order, this was achieved by the contemplation of the Prophet Muhammad. Followers were urged to imitate the Prophet’s life until he became their sole guide and counsellor. Islam is a Bedouin faith at heart.
To quote the great traveller, Hassnein Bey, who was a rare and now too often forgotten observer of the Senussi order; ‘For his followers (The Grand Senussi) forbade all kinds of luxurious living including the possession of gold and jewellery ‘excepting for the adornment of women’ and the use of tobacco and coffee. He imposed no ritual but demanded a return to the simplest form of Islam to be found in the teaching of the prophet. He was intolerant of any contact with Christians, Jews and those Moslems who, in his view, had strayed from the original meaning of Islam.’
It is easy to see that what the Prophet Muhammad taught the Bedouin of Saudi Arabia in the seventh century was well suited to the Bedouin of Cyrenaica, who still led much the same lives in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Its clear and simple principles, to do good, avoid evil and pray regularly, were appealing to a tough nomadic and semi-nomadic people who lived in tents and followed their flocks in a quest for water and grazing.
The Senussi order was a success in Cyrenaica because, as the great anthropologist E. E Evans-Pritchard once wrote: “(the Bedouin) need was for some authority lying outside their segmental tribal system which could compose intertribal or intersectional disputes and bind the tribes and tribal sections within an organisation and under a common symbol.” It was also helpful that the Turkish occupiers of Libya were largely confined to the coastal towns and lacked the arms and will to destroy it.
Many years later, during the Italian occupation of Cyrenaica, the Senussi order was given a new lease of life and became almost politicised. The Italians found it impossible to deal with the many powerful and independent tribal sheiks. They found it easier, as did the British after WWII, to deal with the head of the order, Sayyid Idris, who was to become the King of an independent Libya.
The Ikwan lived in lodges built within the tribal homelands and held prayer meetings there. The Ikhwan were missionaries in the true sense of the word and they lived cheerfully and dressed well. They were self-supporting, growing their own food and herding their own animals. Thus, they avoided living on charity. The ordinary unschooled Bedouin, Muntasabin, had little knowledge of the inner rituals and special prayers of the order, but they gave their personal loyalty to the sheikhs or leaders of the lodges in their territory. The Cyranaican Bedouin lived austere lives and thus many casual observers thought of the Senussi order as being fanatical.
The Grand Senussi aimed to establish the conditions which would allow the Bedouin to live by their own laws and govern themselves, an aspiration which has recently plunged Libya into civil war. The Grand Senussi remained in Libya for only a few years before he moved on to establish lodges in Egypt and Arabia. One of his sons, Sayyid Mohamed al Mahdi, who succeeded him, moved his headquarters to Kufra in 1895 and thence further south to Qiru in Chad in 1899. When Sayyid al Mahdi came to power there were thirty eight Zawiyas in Cyrenaica and eighteen in Tripolitania.Others were scattered over other parts of North Africa and there were nearly twenty in Egypt. Some none too reliable estimates suggest that at its height there were between one and a half million and three million people who owed allegiance to the order.
The French, who were advancing there sphere of influence to Chad, were less than hospitable to the Senussi Order, so the Grand Senussi’s third successor, Sayyid Ahmad al Sheriff, moved his headquarters back to Kufra, in order to retain control of the Wadai to Benghazi slave trade route. He was a charismatic and inspiring Muslim and leader, who was both a scholar and a soldier who led the tribes in the First Senussi War and was defeated by the Italians and left Libya by submarine in 1918.
The Italian occupation of Libya, which commenced in 1911, entered an aggressive phase during Mussolini’s Fascist regime. Then Italians colonists launched a campaign of ‘re-conquest’. They began to pacify the defiant tribes with no little brutality.
Organised resistance by the tribes was impossible so they pursued a classical guerrilla war where Italian sentries were shot, supply columns ambushed, and communications interrupted. There was a succession of small actions and acts of sabotage in different parts of the country.
At first the Italians responded by courting the favour of those tribes, or parts of tribes, near the towns. By offering employment, subsidies and arms, they hoped to turn them against the rebels. In their minds there were two types of tribe, the sottomessi, that is the submitted, and the rebelli.
They thought they had gained the loyalty of the sottomessi to support them against the rebelli. They were to be constantly disappointed. The sottomessi supplied arms, ammunition, food, intelligence, shelter and funds to the rebelli. Sometimes the tribal sheiks would arrange amongst themselves who would submit and who would take the field.
To their consternation, the Italians had overlooked or misinterpreted, as many do, the powerful Bedouin law. The nine Sa’adi tribes of East Libya and their clients were all Bedouin, jealous of each other and hostile to tribes other than their own. The males of each tribe were duty-bound to avenge a slain kinsman. The group of males within the tribe who shoulder this collective responsibility is called the amara dam. The other side of this coin is the duty to protect and aid a living kinsman. This is at the root of Bedouin values. The common ancestry and the kinship of the Sa’adi tribes overrode the lesser demands. The tribes were united by blood, Islam and a common way of life against the Italians.
As the Italian proconsul Graziani wrote of the Second Senussi War. “The entire population thus took part directly or indirectly in the rebellion.” However the guerrilla war was led by some notable families who have received less attention than they deserve. They were the Abbar and the Kizzih of the Awaquir, the Saif al Nasr of the Aulad Suliman, the Bu Baker bu Hadduth of the Bara’asa, the Lataiwish of the Magharba, the Abdalla of the Abaidat, the Asbali of the Arafa, the Suwaikir and the Ilwani of the Abid and the Bu Khatara bu Halaiqua of the Hasa. The homelands of the tribes which these families led stretched from the desert south of the present city of Sirte to the Marmarica in the east around the city of Tobruk. All of this territory was ideal for guerrilla warfare.
The tribal leaders were formidable but they needed the coordinating hand of a leader. They found it in the person of Omar Mukhtar who brought not only his considerable energy and talents into the field but also the network of Senussi lodges and intelligent personnel stretched throughout the tribal homelands. The Islamic Senussi order had for a long time planted seminaries amongst the Bedouin tribes of Eastern Libya. They were staffed by a leader or sheik and a band of the Ikwan (brothers) who educated the young and gave religious and practical leadership.
In the Senussi sheik, Omar Mukhtar, they had a leader who, though he was more than sixty, was an experienced soldier, a talented tactician with an almost unique ability to keep the peace between the fractious tribal detachments which he commanded, perhaps because of his Bedouin birth. His parents were members of a Minifa (Marabtin al-sadqan) tribe from the Marmarica. Between 1912 and 1931 he planned all the gruella operations, gathered and evaluated the intelligence, organised the logistics and finance and led a band of his own.
The Italians response grew more heavy handed as the war progressed. They found that the sottomessi were supplying the rebellei, so they commenced by disarming the non-combatant tribesmen. They went on to harsher methods to stop the flow of rebel volunteers, ammunition and weapons, money and food from the sottomessi. They used the well tried methods of arrests, restricting civilian movements, deportations, aerial bombardment and strafing of recalcitrant tribes. They blocked and poisoned desert wells, confiscated precious livestock and barbed wire was liberally strewn around to restrict the seasonal migrations. The rate of executions was alarming but it was in concentration camps that the sottomessi who were much depleted in health, morale and numbers.
They went after the Senussi lodges, destroying them and deporting their leaders. They captured Omar Mukhtar in September 1931 when he was ambushed near Baida. He was wounded in an arm. His horse was shot and pinned him to the ground. He was taken prisoner and tried in a hurry. The Italians made a spectacle of his final moments. He was hanged at a place called Suluq before an audience of 20,000 Libyans assembled there by their colonial masters. The rebellion was ended. A number of tribal leaders attempted to escape to Egypt.
The logistical problems posed by the huge distance and lack of fodder and water from the Italian bases on the Mediterranean coast meant that the Senussi theocracy based in Kufra was for many years beyond their reach. What is more the Italians became embroiled in World War I and had little time or resources with which to mount an attack on Kufra, protected as it was by distance and an arc of impassable sand seas.
The Grand Senussi’s fourth and last successor was Sayyid Muhammad al Idris who was destined to become King of Libya when it became fully independent.
In 1920 the Italians, still unable to move against him, adopted the pragmatic policy of appointing the future King of Libya, Mohamed Idris es Senussi, Emir of Cyrenaica with his capital at Ajdabiya and his impregnable stronghold in the Kufra oasis. In so doing the Italians began the process of politicising the Senussi hierarchy. It will be seen later this was furthered by the British during WWII.
In 1931 the Italians had built up their sufficient strength to project their power across the desert and they attacked Kufra and brutally killed the Senussi supporters there. Sayyid Idris went into exile in Egypt.
From this brief sketch of the foundation and spread of the Senussi Order, it will be clear that it penetrated rapidly from its first foundation lodge near Baida, mainly via the slave trading routes from Kufra to the Sudan, Chad, Mali and Northern Nigeria. It was pushed out of the Sahel states by the French. However, its firm hold on the nine Sa’adi tribes in Cyrenaica was to give it a key role in modern Libya.
Books by John Oakes: For books by John Oakes see… (USA): http://www.amazon.com/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1 ….. (UK): http://www.amazon.co.uk/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1
Update 31st December 2012
The Libyan government commemorates of Battle of Kufra http://www.libyaherald.com/2013/01/19/1931-battle-of-kufra-commemorated/
The 17th February 2011 revolt against Muammar Gaddafi hinged, to some extent, on tribal loyalties. Following his fall from power tribal loyalties are reasserting themselves. Whilst a great deal of attention has been focussed on the armed militias which are hijacking the Libyan democratic process the importance of tribal allegiance tends to be overlooked. This ‘post’ sets out to examine the role of the Obeidat tribe in the rebellion and its aftermath. Firstly, members of the Obeidat tribe identify themselves by adding al Obeidi to their name. There is a spelling problem. Obeidat is the current form but Obaydat, Abaydat,Abaidat or ‘Ubaydat are also correct and appear occasionally.
A young law student, Iman al-Obeidi, entered the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli on 26th March 2011 and found some members of the international press corps in the restaurant. She told them that she had been gang raped by Gaddafi’s soldiers who had arrested her on the Tripoli to Tajura road. Her story found its way on to international TV and the furore that ensued drew attention to the plight of rape victims in Libya and the brutality of Gaddafi’s loyalist. Iman was born in Tobruk, the port in Eastern Libya, where the late King Idris preferred to live quietly amongst the amongst loyal Obeidat tribesmen.
Also in February 2011 Maj. Gen. Suleiman Mahmud al-Obeidi, commander of the Tobruk military region, defected to the anti Gadaffi rebels along with the Tobruk military garrison. More significantly Staff Maj. Gen. Abdel Fattah Younis al-Obeidi, Gadaffi’s old friend and interior minister, announced his defection to the rebels on Al Arabiya television on 23rd February 2011. He became the front line commander of the rebel army but was murdered under strange circumstances on 29th July 2011.
The Obeidat tribe had opted to join the 17th February anti-Gaddafi rebel confederation based in Benghazi. Whilst acknowledging the role of personal ambition, I argue that both of these senior officers are very likely to have been under pressure from their tribe when they made their decisions. Both officers had clearly received assurances from their tribe that their actions on behalf of the Gaddafi regime would be forgotten; a not inconsiderable factor, especially in the case of a minister of the interior. As a result of their defection rifts occurred amongst the senior officers loyal to Gaddafi and his power began to crumble. Their defection also gave weight to the rebel claim for assistance from the NATO powers.
Maj. Gen. Suleiman Mahmud al-Obeidi’s defection secured for the rebels the port of Tobruk and the Marsa El Hariga oil terminal. Crude oil from Sarir field is pumped through a 400 km pipeline to the terminal which has three berths with a loading capacity of 8,000 tons/hour for tankers of up to 120,000 metric tons deadweight. (There was a loaded tanker in the port at the time of the major general’s defection and the oil it carried was sold with the aid of Qatar to help fund the rebellion.)
Al Obeidat is the largest tribe in East Libya and its homeland, its watan, is extensive, varied and often difficult. It stretches from the strategically important border with Egypt in the east to the highlands above Derna in the west and includes the key port of Tobruk. This was known as the Marmarica region of Eastern Libya.
During the 18th century it pushed the Awlad ‘Ali tribe out of Libya into Egypt’s western desert but cordial relations still exist between the two tribes though the Egyptian border has become unruly and arms and drug smuggling has increased alarmingly.
The Obeitat is a ‘Saadi’ tribe which traces its ancestry to the founding mother of the nine aristocratic tribes of Eastern Libya. In theory all the true members of the tribe own their territory by right and are, therefore, Hurr or free. Infact there are fifteen sub-tribes which have their own homelands and also their own sheiks. These sub-tribes tend to act independently and there are often disputes amongst them. When there is a major threat to the tribe as a whole they tend to act in unison but not always. This is the case for most of the Libyan tribes and that is one of the reasons it is difficult to govern the country. Other tribes that use the Obeidat territory do so as tenants. They are known as Marabtin or client tribes. There are a number of these client tribes which use the Obiedat homeland. One such is the Minifa tribe to which the Libyan hero Omar Mukhtar belonged.
Omar Mukhtar was a sheik of the Sufi Senussi order which was led by King Idris al Senussi. It formed a theocracy which knitted the tribes of Eastern Libya together. King Idris gave prominence to the Eastern tribes and the Obeidat was loyal to the Senussi order. Gaddafi destroyed the Senussi order along with the power of the nine Saadi tribes. These tribes will be looking to redress the balance of power in their favour, a factor for the new government to address soon.
John Oakes – 6th November 2012
For books by John Oakes see… (USA): http://www.amazon.com/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1 ….. (UK): http://www.amazon.co.uk/John-Oakes/e/B001K86D3O/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_pop_1
Update 10th November 2012
A very interesting development in the trial of those accused of murdering Staff Maj. Gen. Abdel Fattah Younis al-Obeidi. See this:-
Update 8th January 2013
The trial of a member of the Obeidat has just commenced in Tripoli and will be worth following:
Update 9th January 2013
Some details of the killing of Gen. Abdel Fattah Younis al-Obeidi
Update 25th January 2013
The Benghazi ‘hit list’ has become world news. One senior officer assassinated in that city in September 2012 was a member of the Obeidat. Air Force Colonel Badr Khamis Al-Obedi was assassinated by unknown gunmen as he left the city’s Saida Aisha mosque after prayers.
Update 30th July 2013
The new Libya Chief of Staff has just been announced. He is Colonel Abdulsalam Jad Allah Al-Salheen Al-Obaidi.
Update 30th October 2013
Another twist to the mystery surrounding the killing of Gen. Abdel Fattah Younis al-Obeidi:
Some observers are beginning to express their anxiety about the future of the Arab Spring. Pragmatists are pointing out that the present unrest in Egypt, The Yemen, Tunisia and Libya was predictable.
The rise in religious fervour throughout Islam has been obvious and Libya may well be the focus of the religious discord for some time to come. The Salafist movements, such as Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi, are determined to see the strict application of Sharia law and the Islamiseation of government. The Salafists are seriously anti- western and, for them, jihad as inevitable.
The failure to understand the Arab concept of power and the fateful notion that Westminster or Washington democracies are readily exportable have combined to raise false hopes in the West. However, Libya still has time to forge a civil society and a representative democracy.
If it comes, it will be Libyan in character. To be successful it will have to take account minority rights such as those of the Berbers in general and the Tebu and Tuareg in particular. It will also have to balance the aspirations of tribes and clans and make some attempt to satisfy regional loyalties which still linger in the old provinces of Cyreniaca, Tripolitania and the Fezzan.
The virtual destruction of the standing army, the police force and the intelligence services has left a power vacuum which has been temporarily filled by armed militias. They have cohered to form very powerful power broking groups and this is probably the greatest challenge to the will of the Libyan people as expressed in recent elections.
The lack of towering figures, such as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu in South Africa, has made reconciliation difficult between the ex Gadaffi supporters and the new militias. Gadaffi’s use of foreign mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa has resulted in serious racial attacks on black people and the incarceration and alleged torture of a large number of foreign workers.
Control the oilfields is still not secure in government hands and tribes, such as the fierce al Zawya in southeast Libya, have threatened to interrupt production in their territories.
The late King Idris, who reigned in Libya between 1951 and 1969, made sure that he controlled the army and the police force and he constantly adjusted the balance of power between them. Gadaffi pursued a similar policy but he often shot or exiled those commanders who threatened him – and they were often the most competent. It may be cynical to suggest that he who controls the army, the police and the intelligence service controls Libya. It would be a sad outcome were this to be proved correct and a new dictator emerged.
It will take time to forge a new Libya. In the meantime those who express impatience with the progress towards democracy might remember that the French revolution resulted in the Reign of Terror. The Spanish have yet to settle the Basque separatist problem. The United Kingdom’s unity is threatened by the Scottish Nationalist Party and sectarian violence broke out in Northern Ireland but a few days ago. Last summer’s riots in Britain were violent reminders that Westminster democracy is not always effective.