Decades of poor treatment and economic discrimination against Libyans in the country’s eastern province of Cyrenaica provided the kindling for the revolt against leader Muammar Qaddafi, and the pro-democracy uprising in neighboring Egypt provided the spark.
The rebellion began in Cyrenaica, a region endowed with oil that was home to Libya’s first and only monarch, King Idris, who ruled from independence in 1951 until he was toppled by Qaddafi, then 27, in a 1969 military coup. Qaddafi then moved quickly to favor his own tribe and the western region around Tripoli, cutting the east’s share of government spending.
After nursing resentments and attempting uprisings that were crushed, anti-Qaddafi easterners now are now advancing toward their goal of ending his 41-year-rule. National Public Radio reported yesterday that opposition Libyans -- tribal elders, professors, businessmen -- were forming a provisional government in the eastern coastal city of al-Bayda.
“There’s always been a level of discontent in the east -- rightly so because they have been somewhat disadvantaged,” Ronald Bruce St John, the author of several books on Libya, said in an interview. “And every time you had a revolt, the regime cracked down harder. In time it became a cycle.”
Qaddafi deliberately pursued a policy to “keep the east poor,” the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli wrote in a Feb. 15, 2008, cable made public by the group WikiLeaks. Half of the men aged 18 to 34 in eastern Libya are unemployed, the cable said, quoting a local source.
Keeping Poor Enough
“The situation reflects in part the Qadhafi regime’s belief that if it keeps the east poor enough, it will be unable to mount any serious political opposition,” said the cable, using its preferred spelling of the leader’s name. It quoted a proverb cited by the local source: “If you treat them like dogs, they will follow you like dogs.”
Libya’s current unrest began as early as Feb. 15, when locals in the eastern city of Benghazi demonstrated against the arrest of activists representing families of prisoners shot by Qaddafi’s forces in a 1996 protest at Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, according to a Feb. 22 paper by London-based journalist Camille Tawil for the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based policy group.
The prisoners had halted their protest over living conditions and detentions without trial, when security forces opened fire, killing as many as 1,200, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. Families weren’t informed of the deaths until 2001 -- without any details -- and Qaddafi didn’t publicly acknowledge the killings until 2004, according to the group. Harassment of the victims’ families, who have demanded an accounting, had only recently eased, the New York-based rights group said in December.
In January, Benghazi residents protesting a lack of housing took over a stalled government housing project, in one of the earliest signs of anti-government action this year, the Egyptian newspaper al-Ahram reported.
The east’s economic privation made it a source of recruits for al-Qaeda and other Islamic extremist groups fighting U.S. forces in Iraq, the cable said, citing someone whose name was blacked out of the WikiLeaks version.
The region’s imams tended to be more outspoken and the tight-knit communities there were harder for Qaddafi’s regime to police, the source told the U.S. diplomats. The State Department spokesman, Philip J. Crowley, said in an e-mailed message that he wouldn’t confirm the authenticity of the cable.
With hundreds of miles of desert separating the main towns of Libya’s three regions, Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan, in the Sahara at the southwest of the country, the regions had little binding them together, St John said. Cyrenaica turned toward Egypt, Tripolitania toward Tunisia and Algeria, and the Fezzan to trade and caravan routes in the Sahara.
“Qaddafi came from a tribe in the center part of the country,” said St John. “One of the first things he and his regime did was try to break down influence of people from Cyrenaica allied with the king.”
Much of the tension between east and west results from rivalries among Libya’s scores of tribes, and Qaddafi’s efforts to divide the country’s riches and power among tribes that supported him, said Edward Walker, a scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington and a former assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs.
‘Two Different Countries’
“One of the problems with Libya is that it’s in many respects two different countries,” Walker said in an interview. Qaddafi’s own Qadhadhfa tribe, from the center of the country, was opposed by the dozens of tribes in the east. “The elements of this rift have been there for a long time,” he said.
Leaders of the large Warfalla tribe, which turned against Qaddafi in a 1993 coup attempt, told al-Jazeera television Feb. 20 that Qaddafi should leave the country. The alleged coup plotters, some linked to the Warfalla tribe, were arrested and family members were forced to execute the officers in 1997 to “cleanse” the tribe’s honor, according to Tawil.
“Libya as a country is a relatively new concept,” said Elliott Abrams, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and a former deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush. “The period of Libya as a modern nation really starts after World War II.”
Most of Libya’s proven oil and gas reserves lie in Cyrenaica, one of three provinces that the 20th century colonial power, Italy, melded into the precursor of modern Libya. Oil and gas account for 97 percent of Libya’s export earnings, one-fourth of the country’s economic output, and 90 percent of government revenue, according to the International Monetary Fund.
“Substantial revenues from the energy sector coupled with a small population give Libya one of the highest per capita GDPs in Africa, but little of this income flows down to the lower orders of society,” the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency wrote in a public document analyzing Libya’s economy.
With $105 billion of reserves in the national treasury and a population of about 6.5 million, Libya has ample funds to support a transition from Qaddafi’s regime and ease any regional tensions that may come from four decades of investment favoring the Tripoli region, Abrams said in an interview.
“If you had a new government, it could actually adopt a development plan that could buy years of stability,” Abrams said.
The country is likely to hold together, even if the regions assert themselves more strongly, and local tribes and religious groups hold sway over their own areas, said St John.
“While regionalism has characterized the country for a period of time, there a truly national feeling that’s developed since independence and especially under Qaddafi,” St John said.
“If Qaddafi holds on for months, you may have a provisional independent republic in the east, but in the long run, I don’t see the country splitting up,” said Abrams.
Muhammad bin Sayyid Hassan as-Senussi, 48, a great-nephew of King Idris, said the country’s tribes are united against Qaddafi and there is no risk of civil war.
“The Libyan people and the tribes have proven they are united,” as-Senussi said in a telephone interview from London today. Talk of civil war, he said, has been “created by the regime to spread fear.”