Qaddafi, tents, and tribes

A few days ago, Canehan made the comment:

I think it is very significant that people in Benghazi flew the old flad of King Idriss, a Senussi. Someone will enlighten me but I think there is a tribal thing here, Senussi against the rest. I have just read a book about British operations behind German/Italian lines in Libya during WWII and much of it was in the Benghazi hinterland, where they had strong support from the local tribes.

Since then I have been digging through my bookshelves and have come up with a couple of morsels.  The first is from Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples, mostly about guerrilla actions against the Italians prior to WWII. In 1918 Italy was established on Libya’s coast and by 1939 occupied the whole of Libya:

  • “…the appropriation of land by immigrants was important during the period 1918-39.”
  • “…Italian rule had been extended from the Libyan coast into the desert by 1934.”
  • “In Cyrenaica, the eastern part of Libya, there was an official colonization of lands expropriated for the purpose, and with funds supplied by the Italian government.”

And most interesting,

  • “During the Italian conquest of Libya, resistance in the eastern region, Cyrenaica, was led and directed by the head of the Sanusi order.”

The wikipedia piece on Senussi has much detail, and further links.

The second source I found was a book long out of print, a biography by Harry Gregory called simply Khadafy.  It’s not a flattering book.  The first two pages are about why he is called a “mad dog” (Ronald Reagan’s epithet).

On one thread today I saw Khadafy referred to as a “son of a despot”.  Actually he was not from a privileged family.  They were bedouin farmers of the Berber tribe of Ghadaffa and devout Sunni Moslems.  Moammar himself was born in a goatskin tent somewhere in the Libyan desert.

I remember when Qaddafi came to Amman for a summit meeting, c 2000.  He brought his tent, as is his habit, and the king let him have the grounds of one of the palaces for it, while the other Arab leaders stayed in hotels.

Qaddafi’s grandfather was killed fighting Italian invaders in 1911.  His father and brother were in jail for long stretches of time for guerrilla activities against the Italian army.  At that time the resistance activities were coordinated by King Idris, then Emir of Cyrenaica, a Senussi, but Ghadafi’s family fought independently of the Libyan resistance movement.

The Italian army had already been routed, and its soldiers had surrendered virtually en masse.  Great Britain and France filled the void.  King Idris was quick to accommodate them.  His Sanusi force, which had fought side by side with the British at Tobruk and throughout most of the other North African campaign offered no opposition.  Only in the desert regions inhabited by Berber tribesmen like the Khadafys was there a failure to make a distinction between the Italians and  the British and French.  In the desert, all Europeans were viewed the same – with suspicion and hatred.

But King Idris joined Libya to the Arab League in 1953, then in 1956 refused to let the British march troops through Libya on the Suez canal expedition.  Then in 1959 oil was discovered and Libya became rich, too rich to need American aid or rent from American and British bases. By the time the king was deposed by Qaddafy in 1969, the British and Americans had begun to think of him as someone who might give access of oil reserves to Russia, while the bedouins thought of him as a stooge of the west. There was an attempt at a counter-coup on the part of officers from Cyrenaica, the area loyal to King Idris, officers who were for “Libya for the Libyans” and did not buy into Qaddafi’s worship of the Egyptian Nassar, but the plot was foiled by American intelligence.

I’m not finished with the book yet, but a purging of bookstores and libraries was one of Qaddafi’s repressive tactics.  Among the books publicly burned: Sartre, Baudelaire, Ezra Pound, Graham Greene, Henry James, and D.H. Lawrence. Graham Greene? Oh no, not Graham Green. Maybe the guy’s a mad dog after all.

Oh, and the demonstrators in this video from Souq al Jummah in Tripoli on Feb 21, are supposed to be chanting “الروح بالدم نفديك يابنغازي , “With our souls, with our blood, we will sacrifice ourselves for you Benghazi!”

UPDATE 2/23/11: I have now finished Harry Gregory’s biography of Khadafy and gotten curious about the author.  People with two first names tend to make me suspicious. But there is absolutely nothing about him in the blogosphere, and in the book itself, only the notation “Chicago, May 1986” at the end of the last page.  And no footnotes, index, dedication, preface, or credits.  My own article (this one) appears on the first page of a google search, always a bad sign when I’m looking for information.  Oh, plenty of used copies for sale–it seems there was only one edition, printed by the Canadian company Paperjacks in 1986 and bought in droves by libraries, if the number of used library editions is any indicator.  But the author seems to have written just this one book, with the clarity, singleness of purpose, and understatement of one of those anonymous writers of a wikileaks cable, then decided to “fold their tents like the Arabs, and as silently steal away”.

Posted in Arabs. 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “Qaddafi, tents, and tribes”

  1. canehan Says:

    Good piece of the various transliterations of Gaddafi’s name, and why, here http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson

    I liked the comment elsewhere on the size of the (King Idris regime) flags flown in Benghazi and elsewhere given they have been banned for 41 years. Either good hoarding or quick tailoring …

  2. Nijma Says:

    The one in this photo looks like it’s seen better days:
    libyan-flag-in-benghazi.jpg


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