Calls to divide Libya —already

The UN Security Council voted unanimously Oct. 27 to lift the no-fly zone over Libya, bringing to a close the seven-month international military action in the country. But the war on the ground may not be over. Following demands by Human Rights Watch, the NTC says it will investigate allegations of reprisal attacks against residents of Tawergha and Sirte—towns said to have supported Moammar Qaddafi and sheltered his forces. HRW reports that militias from Misrata are terrorizing the displaced residents of outlying Tawergha, accusing them of having collaborated in the Qaddafi forces’ long and bloody siege of the city. The entire town of 30,000 people is abandoned—some of it ransacked and burned, according to HRW investigators. (CNN, HRW via, Oct. 30; WSJ, Oct. 28)

Already, elite voices in the West are calling for redrawing the borders of Libya and breaking it up into smaller states—echoing similar calls for Iraq. These calls reflected Washington’s divide-and-rule strategy in Iraq, which enflamed the sectarian war. Lawrence Solomon, executive director of Energy Probe, has an editorial in Canada’s National Post Oct. 29, shamelessly entitled “Divide Libya into its tribal parts.” It opens:

Who should get Libya’s fabulous oil and gas wealth, an amount that could be equivalent to several million dollars per Libyan? With NATO leaving Libya Monday, the West should prepare for the aftermath. The coming chaotic months will see infighting, and perhaps a renewal of civil war, among the many rival tribal and ideological groups. The West should now consider whether to influence—or impose—a just resolution.

If the West takes a hands-off approach, Libya is likely to fall into the hands of another strongman, as all Arab countries have in the Middle East. Does the West want another Gaddafi to control these riches? Or should the riches be divvied up among Libya’s many tribes? Should Libya—a new country conjured up by Western powers 60 years ago—even exist in its present form? Or should some other borders be created, to better reflect the traditional lands and cultural differences of its indigenous populations?

This immense country…had but one million people on its independence day in 1951, when the United Nations merged together one French and two British-administered territories to create Libya. Few among those one million had any notion of nationhood—they largely hailed from nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes, some 20 tribes among them of various racial stock, typically with fierce allegiances to their own clans and little else.

Now, this is not even historically accurate. The French and British only arrived in the aftermath of World War II, when Libya was taken from the defeated Italians. For 40 years before that, Italy had ruled the territory as a unified entity, with the same borders it has today. For 400 years before that, under the name of Tripolitania, it had been an autonomous tributary (and, from 1864 a vilayet or province) of the Ottoman Empire—again with largely the same borders it has today. In other words, Libya has been a unified entity more than twice as long as the United States. So much for instant-expert Solomon.

But much more the point—what do Libyans themselves have to say on the matter, dare we deign to ask? Well, the Berbers, who have the most to fear from a centralized state dominated by Libya’s Arab majority, are explicitly rejecting separatism. Libya’s Amazigh Cultural Movement on Oct. 11 issued a statement entitled “The New State of Libya—Freedom, Democracy and Pluralism,” calling for a unified state with both Arabic and Berber as official languages, and rejecting political parties formed around ethnic identity. (Online at Amazigh Cultural Association in America)

Voices on the left as well as in elite sectors of the West have predicted the “balkanization” of Libya, which recently led Juan Cole to comment:

I don’t understand the propensity of Western analysts to keep pronouncing nations in the global south “artificial” and on the verge of splitting up. It is a kind of Orientalism. All nations are artificial…

Moreover, most nation-states are multi-ethnic, and many long-established ones have sub-nationalisms that threaten their unity. Thus, the Catalans and Basque are uneasy inside Spain, the Scottish may bolt Britain any moment, etc., etc. In contrast, Libya does not have any well-organized, popular separatist movements… Everyone speaks Arabic, though for Berbers it is the public language; Berbers were among the central Libyan heroes of the revolution, and will be rewarded with a more pluralist Libya.

This is a question for Libyans to decide. Not pontificators in the West.

See our last posts on Libya and the revolutions in North Africa.

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