Libya: By Thirds
By J. Millard Burr
Friday, May 29th, 2015 @ 10:29PM
Left: Libyan major oil pipelines, refiners and major oil fields. (Hassan S. Hassan, 2009)
The US Department of State International Boundary Study series was initiated in 1961 with studies (#1,2,3) on the boundaries of Libya:
- Algeria — Libya Boundary 04/28/1961
- Libya — Niger Boundary 05/04/1961
- Chad — Libya Boundary Original date 1961, updated 12/15/1978
While an employee of the DOS Office of the Geographer, in late 1978, I was given the responsibility for updating Issue #3, “Chad-Libya Boundary.” Within the office there was no recollection why Libyan boundaries were chosen to initiate the Boundary Study series, but Issue #3 needed updating given the Aouzou Strip dispute that was later resolved at the International Court of Justice.
As for Libya itself, from Libya’s independence in December 1951 until the deposal of King Idris that brought Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and his military cabal to power in September 1969, the nation was seen as little more than a Cold War backwater. Still, its foreign policy was noteworthy because Idris had managed to escape the smothering embrace of Egypt’s President Gamal abdel Nasser and his Arab Socialist movement. And though he had opposition from the small Libyan Muslim Brotherhood element, the King had little political opposition.
Libya’s isolation ceased with the emergence of Gaddafi, who ran hot and cold on the unification of Libya with Egypt (and the Sudan). Frustrated in that effort, Gaddafi’s geopolitical perspective turned south and he sought to affect the unification of Libya with Chad. The strategy would, in effect, reanimate the millennia-old Tripoli to Lake Chad trade route that linked the Mediterranean with equatorial Africa.
Gaddafi first demanded the incorporation or the Borkou-Ennedi-Tibesti region of Chad’s far north (the so-called Aouzou Strip). He then expanded his demands to the assimilation of Chad itself. Finally, he threatened the incorporation of both Sudan’s Darfur region and northern Niger. To enforce his dictate, Gaddafi created his own Arab Foreign Legion — which was more threatening on paper than it ever was on the battlefield.
It was Gaddafi’s threat to Chad that in 1979 led the Office of the Geographer to review the history of the Aouzou Strip and reissue of the Libya-Chad boundary study.
Libya and its Administrative Boundaries
A definitive boundary study has both its historical and political components. The Libya of 1979 — and today’s Libya — are in fact a remnant of the Greco-Roman provincial structure. Cyrenaica, or eastern Libya, was settled by Greek colonists in the 7th Century BC. In time, that eastern reach was settled and the city-states of Barka and Cyrene dominated the region.
The settlement of that land to the west of Cyrenaica, the region that would come to be known as Tripolitania, soon followed. In 74BC the last Greek ruler of Cyrenaica deeded Cyrenaica to Rome, after which it remained for centuries a roman province.
The delimitation of Libya has changed little in 2,000 years. Measurements taken by Pliny the Elder, the Roman geographer, indicated that Cyrenaica stretched some 810 miles east to west. Today, the extent of the region remains approximately the same; Libya’s boundary with Egypt and thence in a straight line to the border with Tunisia, measures approximately 800 miles.
Whether under Roman rule or later, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica comprised little more than the settlement of a strip of land along the Mediterranean coast. Administrators paid almost no attention to Libya south of the thirtieth parallel.
In ancient times Tripolitania was known as a Roman entrepôt, exporting olive oil and ivory from central Africa; Cyrenaica remained decidedly Greek and was known for its wine exports.
Administratively, whether during the Roman era or afterward under Arab or Ottoman rule, Libya has remained divided in thirds: Tripolitania dominates the northwest, Cyrenaica (which occupies most of the Barka Plateau) the northeast, and in the south, with the sparsely populated Fezzan.
Ottoman Rule, Italian Rule
Ottoman domination of Libya dates from 1551, after which coastal Libya was ruled as the Wilayat of Tripolitania. In the century that followed the Cyrenaica region languished and Benghazi port itself nearly ceased to exist. The city’s fortunes revived a century later owing to Ottoman resettlement. (For background on Benghazi see: Douglas Johnson, “Jabal al-Akhdar, Cyrenaica,” 1973.)
As for the forgotten half of Libya — the Fezzan — or that vast interior region located south of the two coastal provinces, Ottoman interest was only given to it in the mid-nineteenth century. And it wasn’t until after the Sanussi outreach began that Ottoman rule pushed well into the interior.
The Italian colonization of Libya dates from the Italo-Turkish war that began in 1910. In October 1911, Italy attacked Tripoli and soon “liberated” the Ottoman Wilayat. Arabs disputed the move, but Tripolitania was largely under Italian control by 1914. In contrast, both Cyrenaica and the Fezzan were home to rebellions led by the Senussi brotherhood, a Sufi order centered at Jaghbub oasis located south of Benghazi and close to the border with Egypt.
Following WWI, Tripolitania declared its independence from Italy and formed an Arab republic, the al-Jumhuriya al-Trafulsiya. Economically and politically, it was more advanced than Cyrenaica, but the Jamahuriya was unable to reconcile its various internal conflicts. Thus, the revolt was soon quashed.
In the face of armed Arab opposition, mainly in Cyrenaica, several reorganizations of the colonial authority were necessary. From 1919 to 1929 the Italian government maintained the two traditional “Mediterranean” provinces, with separate colonial administrations.
In 1920 Italy recognized Sheikh Idris as Emir of Cyrenaica. Muhammad Idris bin Muhammad al-Mahdi as-Senussi (b. 1889) was the hereditary leader of the extensive Senussi Brotherhood that dominated much of the Fezzan and spread its chapters into Egypt and Chad. That move did not ease tension in the east and an Arab revolt in Cyrenaica and Fezzan led the Italians to govern from Tripoli.
In 1934 the Arab revolt was ended and Italy revived the use of “Libya” to define its colony. Cyrenaica and Tripolitania were themselves divided with administrations governing from Tripoli and Misrata in the west, and Benghazi and Derna in the east. As for the Fezzan, it was named the Territorio Sahara Libico and administered by the military. (See M. A. Alawar, “A Concise Bibliography of Northern Chad and Fezzan in Southern Libya,” 1983.)
Following WWII, Libya was the first nation to work through the United Nations to achieve independence. In December 1951, it was proclaimed a constitutional and hereditary monarchy and Idris was declared king. The polity itself comprised the three provinces Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan. As such, the Kingdom formed a federal union having three capitals — Tripoli, Benghazi, and Al Bayda. Thereafter, the economy wasn’t much to speak of. Libya exported little more than scrap metal left over from WWII, and American bomb disposal teams helped find and destroy the millions of mines left over from that conflict.
In effect, today’s Libya is still split into the three parts whose boundaries generally follow those of the historic Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan. And their differences, political, cultural, economic and tribal, are pronounced as any time in the past. Northern Libya of today is split into two idiosyncratic parts whose boundaries remain approximately those of ages past.
From Benghazi, literally the modern capital of ancient Cyrenaica, to Tripoli, the modern capital of ancient Tripolitania, the distance is but 400 miles; nonetheless, in the post-Gaddafi epoch the twain has sundered with a vengeance.
The Discovery of Oil
Given the suspicion that there were substantial petroleum deposits to be found, a Libyan Petroleum Law was issued in 1955. Two years later King Idris opened Libya to any petroleum exploration company willing to work there under the rather strict conditions set out by the King. Seventeen companies bid on concessions. In 1959 Standard Oil of New Jersey made the first major oil strike in the Libyan Desert 100 miles south of the Mediterranean. As the oil was “sweet” light crude, well in demand in Europe, that event set off a scramble for oil. By 1961 more fields were found and Libya began to export oil.
By the mid nineteen-sixties Libya was the world’s sixth largest oil exporter and growing fast. It would soon challenge Saudi Arabia for leadership.
The location of the Fezzan oil fields is about evenly divided between east and west (see the featured map at the top of the page). And pipelines have been constructed to two distinct ports on the Mediterranean, with one near Tripoli, the other near Benghazi.
Following independence, the United Kingdom of Libya comprised three provinces — Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan — and it was governed federally with three regional capitals at Tripoli, Benghazi, and Al Bayda. However, shortly after the discovery of oil, King Idris approved the unification of a unitary Kingdom of Libya with its capital at Tripoli.
Administratively, the exploration and discovery of oil has had a profound effect on the Fezzan. Roads now connect the south to the north. Cyrenaica is connected to the Sanussi tarika at Jaghbub as never before, and Tripoli is closely united with its oilfields in the western Libyan Desert. In sum, the isolation of the Fezzan has been lost, as has its historic “independence.” With the discovery of oil it has been divided in two, and, in effect, so has Libya.
Gaddafi Takes Charge
The monarchy was eliminated when in September 1969 a military coup led by the 28-year-old Colonel Muammar Gaddafi succeeded and the Libyan Arab Republic was created. Among its first actions was the elimination of the corruption that was then rampant and the equitable distribution of the nation’s oil wealth. Additionally, the military government ended the US lease at the giant Wheelus Air Base, and within months after that event most American oil companies had left the country.
For nearly a half-century the Libyan military would rule Libya as its own fiefdom. Still, the historical administrative divisions remained. Gaddafi, a member of the small Gadadfa tribe, was born in a desert encampment some twenty miles south of Sirte a Tripolitanian coastal town located east of Tripoli. In the regional scheme of things, Gaddafi would remain all his life particularly concerned with the “splittist” political activity in Cyrenaica. Of particular concern was the Muslim Brotherhood, which had a strong base in Benghazi.
In February 1973, street protests beginning in Benghazi led Gaddafi to resign. Two months later he reemerged at Zwara port east of Tripoli and issued the “Zwara Declaration” that among other things called for the “elimination of political illnesses,” specifically noted was the Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan al-Muslimun). Then, from his headquarters at the Aziza Barracks in Tripoli Gaddafi attacked his political enemies with a vengeance. For decades the Ikhwan would remain an attenuated force, operating only in secret, and mostly in Cyrenaica.
Gaddafi would impoverish his people as he sought by economic and political means to spread Libyan influence throughout the African Sahil, and from Morocco to the Levant. When he took on the United States over seaward claims to the Gulf of Sidra (Sirte), his Libyan edifice would collapse like a house of cards.
By the last decade of the 20th century the Muslim Brotherhood revived in Benghazi. Radical Libyans joined the al-Qaeda, which was operating from Afghanistan. And with the emergence of the Arab Spring in early 2011 Gaddafi’s enemies considered him a weakened tyrant. They believed that his military edifice was like Egypt’s, old, tired, and without legitimacy.
Within days of the Arab-Spring revolt in Egypt, in February 2011, a revolution was ignited in Libya. The Libyan uprising that began on 17 February 2011 was fed two days later when President Mubarak of Egypt resigned. The center of Libyan opposition to Gaddafi rule was, as usual, found in Benghazi. And when Gaddafi moved to destroy his opposition in Tripolitania the United States and European states moved quickly to end his rule.
Thanks to airpower that destroyed Gaddafi’s military, within months the military leader was found and killed. That was the end of one chapter in the history of Libya, but a new chapter has yet to be written. Though seemingly ripe for the picking, Libya would not so easily fall to the Muslim Brothers. (See, J. Millard Burr, “Libya – Ali al-Salabi and the Re-emerging Muslim Brotherhood.)” For the present Libya remains the prize that pits Libyan nationalists against Libyan Islamists.
Under “normal” circumstance a resolution to the civil war in Libya would be the creation of two nations along the lines of Tripoli and Benghazi. The politically viable entities would incorporate their oilfields to the south, and the Fezzan would cease to exist. (The water that is piped from the southern Sahara is an issue that would have to be resolved, as would the administration of the historically important Kufra oasis.)
For the time being, the warring parties do not recognize their opponent’s right to exist. And meanwhile ISIS forces are gaining ground. On May 29, 2015, ISIS took control of Sirte’s airport and attached military base, after the Tripoli based Libyan government forces withdrew. The port city on the south coast of the Gulf of Sidra, has been under ISIS control since February.
This latest advance should worry the Europeans who would not be pleased to find an Islamist state on its doorstep — though it did much to make that possible and little to obviate that possibility.