Understanding the Sanusi of Cyrenaica: How to Avoid a Civil War in Libya
Dangerous cracks have begun to show in Libya. The announcement earlier this month by a Benghazi conference of 3,000 tribal and political leaders from Eastern Libya that they intended to push for greater autonomy for their region was greeted with surprise, confusion, and even dismay. The call was cited by many commentators as a setback for democracy and an ominous beginning to the new dispensation. The chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC) dismissed the voices from the eastern region and accused them of hatching foreign plots and the designs of Gaddafi’s supporters; he even threatened to deploy “force” to “deter” them.
Yet those who discount calls for greater autonomy in the eastern region, known as Cyrenaica – or Barqa to the Arabs – as agitators are making a profound error. They are overlooking the strong sense of identity of the eastern peoples and the many years of suffering and struggle they have endured to preserve and regain their freedom.
The easterners, traditionally nomadic tribes, have always seen themselves as distinct from the more settled peoples of Western Libya. The boundary separating Cyrenaica from Tripolitania to the west was called by one scholar of the region: “without dispute one of the most decided frontiers, natural and human, to be found anywhere in the world”. The division also extends to natural resources, with Cyrenaica possessing 80 per cent of Libya’s oil reserves.
While many Libyans of all regions wanted Gaddafi gone and sacrificed much to make this happen, the people of Cyrenaica, it can be plausibly argued, played the most prominent role in the revolution. The clues as to Cyrenaica’s unique status were everywhere in the uprising, if one cared to look.
Sanusi Sufi order
Chief among these clues were the symbols of the central marker of eastern identity, the Sanusi Sufi order that was established in Cyrenaica in the 19th century and became the Libyan monarchy. Not only did protesters in places such as Benghazi, the capital of Cyrenaica, wave the Sanusi flag, but they carried pictures of King Idris al-Sanusi, the head of the Sanusi order, who Gaddafi deposed.
The protesters revived the old national anthem of the Sanusi era – which has now been re-established as the Libyan national anthem – and rebel brigades were named after anti-colonial Sanusi fighters. The Benghazi conference of tribal leaders earlier this month named Zubair Ahmed al-Sanusi, King Idris’ nephew, the leader of the new Cyrenaica Transitional Council, which is intended, they declared, to “protect the rights” of the local people.
Who are the Sanusi and why do they remain so influential to so many? Only by understanding the Sanusi order, the Cyrenaica tribes and the historic role of both in the development of Libya will we be able to make sense of both the recent moves towards autonomy and prospects for the future of Libyan democracy and unity.
The tribes of Cyrenaica have been resistant to central control for millennia, from the Egyptian Pharaohs to the Ottoman Empire. This resistance was partly due to their tribal code of behaviour, which stressed honour, hospitality, revenge and liberty.
The disparate Cyrenaica tribes, which often fought each other, united in the 19th century under the Sufis of the Sanusi order. The order was founded by Muhammad ibn Ali as-Sanusi (1787-1859), a descendent of the Prophet of Islam. Known as the Grand Sanusi, he attracted many disciples teaching in Mecca and set off into Africa to promote his teachings, bringing education and knowledge of Islam to local tribes.
The Grand Sanusi established a hierarchical Sufi structure centred in the remote oasis of Jaghbub in Eastern Cyrenaica. He built a renowned university in Jaghbub that had the reputation of being the most prestigious and important educational institution in Africa, after Al-Azhar in Cairo.
The British scholar, EE Evans-Pritchard, noted in his classic book – The Sanusi of Cyrenaica – that everyone in Cyrenaica “almost to a man” followed the Sanusi order, despite it having “never once resorted to force to back its missionary labours”. The Sanusi, however, found few followers in Western Libya.
Italy’s wars in Libya
In the 1910s and 1920s, Italy fought wars of conquest in Libya, the second of which brought Mussolini’s fascists to the region. The local people fought back, with the main resistance coming from the Sanusi-led Cyrenaica tribes.
Under the leadership of legendary Omar al-Mukhtar, a Sanusi sheikh who had studied at the university in Jaghbub, Cyrenaica tribes fought and bogged down the Italians for years.
The Italians resorted to brutal means to subdue the tribes, including executions, sealing wells and dropping tribesmen from airplanes. In 1930, the Italians forced 100,000 Cyrenaican men, women and children into concentration camps. During the following three years, 60-70,000 of the prisoners are believed to have died. Ultimately, Italian operations in Cyrenaica resulted in the deaths of one-half to two-thirds of the population.
World War II halted Italy’s plans for Libya. The Sanusi leadership, now in exile in Egypt, allied with Britain against the Nazis and Fascists, with a Sanusi regiment of the British Army fighting in North Africa under the Sanusi flag.
In 1951, Cyrenaica was incorporated in a federal system with the western regions of Tripolitania and Fezzan to form the newly independent Libya. The nation was established as a constitutional monarchy under King Idris, the head of the Sanusi order. King Idris forged close ties with the West and launched development programmes, opened universities and gave women the right to vote.
However, King Idris faced challenges in Western Libya as he was strongly identified with Cyrenaica. In addition, the growing influence of Nasser’s Arab Nationalism and the 1967 Arab-Israeli War challenged Sanusi’s pro-Western stance. In 1969, Muammar Gaddafi seized power in a military coup.
Gaddafi reserved special vitriol for the Sanusi and people of Cyrenaica. He marginalised the Cyrenaica tribes in favour of his own tribe – the Gaddafa – and other western tribes. Gaddafi hunted down Sanusi figures, smashed Sanusi graves – scattering their bones in the desert – and disinterred the body of the Grand Sanusi. In 1988, Gaddafi blew up the Sanusi University in Jaghbub.
Zubair Ahmed al-Sanusi, the nephew of King Idris, was arrested and sentenced to death. Sanusi spent nine years in solitary confinement as part of a sentence that stretched over three decades. He was frequently tortured, including being strung up by his hands and legs, and had his feet broken by Gaddafi’s men. He became the world’s longest serving political prisoner, incarcerated four years longer than Nelson Mandela.
In the 1990s, economically depressed Cyrenaica saw the rise of anti-Gaddafi groups among the former Sanusi tribes. The best known was the Islamic Fighting Group, which was associated with veterans of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan who returned to challenge Gaddafi. The fighters attacked central government troops from mountain bases.
Request for autonomy
Attempting to defeat the insurgency, Gaddafi forces locked down the mountain region and bombed the rebels, which were accused of activating Sanusi links with local tribes. In 1996, Gaddafi’s regime killed more than 1,200 prisoners in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison, mostly from Cyrenaica. The jail had become the government’s main detention centre for suspected “Islamist” militants. Gaddafi now cynically began presenting himself as an opponent of “Islamism”, a process that would lead to a new, lucrative business alliance with the West.
After 9/11, Gaddafi allied with the Bush administration, who named the Islamic Fighting Group a terrorist organisation and “renditioned” Libyans captured abroad back to Gaddafi. Torture and death awaited them in Gaddafi’s prisons.
On February 17, 2011, a “Day of Rage” was organised in mainly eastern cities and the sequence of events began which would eventually result in the toppling of Gaddafi. This date had a particular significance. On February 17, 1987, Gaddafi’s forces had hanged six young people in Benghazi’s sports arena, their execution footage repeatedly shown on television. Gaddafi security forces also killed 11 people during a protest on the same date in 2006.
Today, liberated Libya is at a critical juncture. The people of Cyrenaica, who have made immense sacrifices to preserve their liberty, honour and dignity, will not be denied their request for autonomy. It needs to be taken seriously by the NTC and international community. The NTC leaders need to show great wisdom in their handling of the sensitive situation presented by Zubair Ahmed al-Sanusi’s newfound leadership over thousands of Cyrenaica tribal leaders. Tension is rising. Just over a week ago, men with rifles and knives attacked a Benghazi autonomy rally where Sanusi was speaking, killing one person.
If the people of Cyrenaica are ignored or subjected to an overbearing central authority intent on dominating them from faraway Tripoli, the response will be violent. A resulting civil war could tear Libya apart, leading to a situation akin to Biafra in Nigeria in the 1960s or even Pakistan in 1971, when a Muslim nation fell apart in an extraordinarily bloody civil war.
We have seen the success of federalism in nations such as Switzerland and the United States, and there is no reason why it cannot be attempted today in Libya.
It is Libya’s challenge, as one of the few Arab countries that has emerged from the nightmare of dictatorship, to fully accommodate its own people – especially those who are different. This would be in accordance with the ideals of the Arab Spring; that all citizens be treated equally with justice, human rights and economic opportunities. A federal system could be the essential ingredient to ensure the long-term stability and prosperity of the nation.
Unless the NTC urgently and seriously engages with the concerns of Cyrenaica, Libya could see a rapid descent into chaos that would frustrate the aspirations of its long-suffering citizens. The spirit of the Arab Spring is about acceptance and harmony. All Libyans need to celebrate the rich history of its people – and none is richer than the Sanusi of Cyrenaica.
Professor Akbar Ahmed is Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies at American University in Washington DC and the former Pakistani High Commissioner to the United Kingdom.
Frankie Martin is an Ibn Khaldun Chair Research Fellow at American University’s School of International Service and is assisting Professor Ahmed on Ahmed’s forthcoming study, Journey into Tribal Islam: America and the Conflict between Center and Periphery in the Muslim World, to be published by Brookings Press.
This article was published by Al Jazeera on March 26, 2012. Read it here.