The fractures that could pull Libya apart

Nicholas Pelham writes: Eight months after Muammar Qaddafi’s overthrow, journalists seeking wars in Libya have to journey deep into the Sahara and beyond the horizons of most Libyans to find them. A senior official of Libya’s temporary ruling body, the National Transitional Council (NTC), flippantly waved away an invitation to leave his residence at the Rixos, Qaddafi’s palatial Tripoli hotel, to join a fact-finding delegation to Kufra, a trading post 1,300 kilometers to the southeast, near Sudan and Chad. “Isn’t it Africa?” he asks.

Yet for Libya’s new governors, the turbulent south—home to Libya’s wells of water and oil—is unnerving. Since Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the NTC chairman, declared an end to the civil war last October, the violence in the south is worse than it was during the struggle to oust Qaddafi. Hundreds have been killed, thousands injured, and, according to UN figures, tens of thousands displaced in ethnic feuding. Without its dictator to keep the lid on, the country, it seems, is boiling over the sides.

Kufra, some six hundred kilometers from the nearest Libyan town, epitomizes the postwar neglect. Several on the NTC’s nine-man mission I accompanied in late April were making their first visit there. The air of exuberance we felt flying aboard Qaddafi’s private jet and breakfasting on salmon-filled omelets cooked by his dashing stewardess, clad in a scarlet uniform, vanished as we began our descent. How much protection could we expect from the two members of the mission who had been included to protect the group and who had been recruited for the journey from the Kufra’s two fighting tribes—the Arab Zuwayy and the black Toubou? A NTC official criticized the pilot for approaching the runway from the town, where we made an easy target, not the desert. The airfield was deserted.

“We have a tradition of welcoming our guests,” said the Zuwayy’s tribal sheikh, Mohammed Suleiman, in less than welcoming tones, once we had found his mansion. “But we’re cursing this government for abandoning us to the Africans.” A room full of sixty tribesmen echoed his rebuke; since the revolution, members of the Toubou tribe had swarmed into the town and were threatening to wrest control of the oil fields nearby, he said. For the sheikh, the only solution was to expel them.

The catalyst for the fighting had been the NTC’s appointment of a Toubou leader to guard the Chad frontier, thus putting him in control of trans-Saharan smuggling, apparently as a reward for his support in the revolution. Gasoline, which in Libya is cheaper than water, subsidized flour, and guns go out; whisky and migrants come in. Though the Zuwayy had ten times as many Mercedes trucks as the Toubou, their incomes had plummeted. As animosities rose, the two tribes divided their mixed town of Kufra into fortified zones and fired mortars at each other’s houses. In fighting that followed this spring, 150 were killed.

After a communal meal of lambs’ heads served on vast tin trays, we crossed town to the Toubou quarter. Red-tiled Swiss-style villas gave way to African cinder-block shanties, some blackened by bombing. Tarmac roads led into sandy tracks. Where the Zuwayy had served us a feast on thick blood-red carpets, the Toubou poured glasses of goat yogurt. The Zuwayy had chandeliers; the Toubou had a flickering neon strip and sporadic blackouts. “The air-conditioning is broken,” their spokesmen apologized. The NTC delegates, who sat silently during the Zuwayys’ browbeating, now seemed like feudal lords chiding troublesome peasants; as we left they said the Toubou border guards were outlaws. The next day fighting flared. At a gathering of Libya’s many militias in Benghazi, nearly a thousand kilometers to the north, startled UN officials ducked for cover as Zuwayy and Toubou gunmen faced off in the corridors.

Some nine hundred kilometers west of Kufra as the crow or plane flies—for there are no roads—Sabha, the provincial capital of the southwestern Fezzan, also suffered from ethnic strife. On March 27, in the midst of a heated session of a local military council meeting to discuss the allocation of payments to former fighters, the representative of the Awlad Suleiman, another Arab tribe, shot three Toubou councilors dead. As the fighting spread, Arab snipers took to their villa rooftops and lobbed Katyusha rockets across the tin wall separating their neighborhood from the Toubou shantytown of Tayuri. Footage on their mobile phones shows tribesmen parking their tanks at Tayuri’s entrance and shelling its shacks. When the firing subsided three days later, the Toubou counted seventy-six dead in the shantytown alone. Scores more were killed on the roads.

Like the Toubou, North Africa’s indigenous Berbers — or Imazighen as they prefer to call themselves — depict Qaddafi’s rule as four decades of unremitting Arabization. To erase their ethnicity, they say, Qaddafi labeled them mountain Arabs, replaced their historic place-names with Arab ones, and suppressed the Ibadi school of Islam that many Imazighen follow on account of its more egalitarian bent. Unlike Sunnis, the mainstream Ibadi school opens up leadership of the Muslim community to all ethnic groups, not only the Quraish, the Prophet Muhammad’s Arab tribe. Qaddafi accused mothers who spoke the Amazigh tongue, Tifinagh, at home of feeding poison to their children. [Continue reading…]

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