Drysdale on Libya
Professor of Geography Alasdair Drysdale was born in Libya and lived there on and off until the age of 19. He has both a personal connection to Libya and a professional one. A political and human geographer, Drysdale’s teaching and research focus on the Middle East, Japan, and other non-western regions of the world. He has been watching closely the wave of revolutionary fervor crossing the Middle East and traveled recently to Jordan where he heard first-hand responses to these historic events. Drysdale’s perspectives on the history and geography of Libya illuminate some of the forces behind the Libyan conflict.
Drysdale’s birth in Libya was one of professional chance. His father was a British diplomat commandeered to work in the British-administered regions of Libya following World War II and then, later, in the independent Libya under King Idris. The elder Drysdale’s final term of service in Libya ended in 1969, fortuitously, since Qaddafi’s Libyan revolution took place in September of that year, ending western influence in the country.
Drysdale has pleasant memories of his time in Libya, though he does recall at least one occasion when westerners were not entirely welcome. As a British boy in Libya during the Suez Canal invasion of 1956, Drysdale remembers that rocks were thrown at his British army school bus as he passed. “The Brits weren’t that popular,” says Drysdale wryly. Despite the pelting, he arrived at school safely. Today, that same school building serves as Qaddafi’s headquarters.
From his experience in Libya and work as a geographer, Drysdale is keenly aware of the unique intersection of geography and history in Libya that is today contributing to the factionalizing of west and east, with Qaddafi loyalists concentrated in Tripoli in the west and Libyan rebels in eastern Benghazi.
The Sahara desert has an undeniable influence on the country. The desert covers 90% of the land, making most of Libya an inhospitable furnace. In those areas of the country that are populated, the desert acts to isolate one area from another. Drysdale explains:
“Libya is unusual because the Sahara extends right to the Mediterranean between Tripoli and Benghazi. In Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria, you’ve got a pretty contiguous settled and fertile strip. But Libya has a natural division. This is a huge country about the size of Alaska or twice Texas and yet it has only six million people and the vast majority live along the coast in and around Benghazi and Tripoli, so the natural unity of Libya is very precarious.”
This geographic reality has shaped the history of Libya. Since the time of the Phoenicians, the two populated northern regions plus a third region in the south, the Fezzan, often have been conquered independently of each other—at different times, under different rulers. Though unified under Roman rule, the regions were considered separate states in other periods, as for example, were Tripoli and Benghazi in the early 20th century when they were separate colonies under Italian rule.
The differing historical trajectories for east and west produced cultural differences. Drysdale observes that complex and deep tribal allegiances characterize the two regions, as do differences in dialect and cultural identification. Tripolitanians, for example, are allied more closely to northern African culture while those from Benghazi look to Egypt.
“I don’t want to overstate the division [between east and west],” Drysdale clarifies “because I don’t think what you’re seeing here is a desire by Libyans to create two countries. That might be the result, but I don’t think any Libyans would advocate that solution. They want to see a united Libya.”
Nonetheless, both the limited support for Qaddafi in the west and the antipathy toward him in the east may have roots in tribal politics that stretch back hundreds of years.
Drysdale notes with interest an element of the Benghazi demonstrations that is thought-provoking in the context of tribal politics:
“The very first pictures of the demonstrations in Benghazi showed people displaying the old Libyan flag which is red, green, and black with a star and crescent, and that flag has been in disuse since Idris was overthrown [in 1969 by Qaddafi]. I was very, very curious about how so many of these flags suddenly starting appearing 40 years later—where do they all come from?—and that it came to be the symbol of the movement against Qaddafi.”
Given that King Idris was a monarch criticized by more than a few Libyans for consolidating personal wealth, undermining tribal strength, and pandering to western interests, it would hardly seem a golden age to which Libyans would long to return. Furthermore, the Libyan population is very young. Few remaining might actually recall the era before Qaddafi. But Idris was from a Cyrenaican tribe—a tribe of Benghazi. When Qaddafi overthrew Idris, he overthrew the power of the Cyrenaicans and brought his own Qadhadhfa tribe to power. At the same time, he elevated members of two large western tribes to government and army positions. Wealth and influence shifted from east to west. In the current Libyan uprising, some analysts contend that segments of the Libyan population may be seizing an opportunity to restore tribal dominance. Drysdale is not convinced, however, that tribe is a major factor in the uprising. And how scores of Idris-era flags suddenly materialized remains a mystery.
Tribal politics may help explain why some Libyans still support Qaddafi, despite what is widely seen among Libyans as his mismanagement of the economy and tyrannical governance.
“A lot of his [Qaddafi’s] support is manufactured,” contends Drysdale, “but he does have genuine support within his tribe. Mostly it’s a question of survival because if Qaddafi goes, they go with him, so they have a vested interest in perpetuating the regime.”
Tribal allegiance is, however, only one element in a complex struggle in Libya that is also economic, political, generational, regional, and global. While there may be historic precedent and geographic support for a separate Tripoli and Benghazi, there are more reasons for the two cities to remain united.
For Drysdale, if the Libyan uprising were to result in a divided state with Qaddafi in power in the west, as has been suggested in recent mediation efforts, it would be extremely undesirable. First and foremost, he contends—tribal politics aside—the Libyans themselves don’t want that. Secondly, trying to negotiate the division of oil resources would be contentious, at best. Qaddafi is not a popular figure either in his own country or the region. A united Libya under better leadership could not only use its wealth more wisely and for the greater good but also raise its influence in the region.
Drysdale would like to see democratic reform in Libya for a more personal reason, too: he could then visit the place of his birth. Libya was for many years closed to tourism and, even as it has purportedly opened up in recent years, visas have been hard to come by and in-country movement limited. Though a tourism industry may not be of interest to a new government, Libya would have much to offer. Drysdale extolls the land’s beauty: amazing Roman ruins, magnificent beaches, pristine water—it would be a rich opportunity for a new generation to explore an unfamiliar world.
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