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Neglect, tribalism, history fuel east Libya revolt

Eastern Libya always been "a headache" to authorities.

February 23, 2011 4:35 by

Discrimination against tribes in eastern Libya added to the grievances that ignited an uprising against leader Muammar Gaddafi in parts of the country with a long history of rebelling against authority. During his four decades in power, experts say Gaddafi has favoured tribes in and around Tripoli at the expense of the eastern regions where much of Libya’s oil resources are located and which have fallen from his grip this week.

Anti-Gaddafi rebels are in control of territory stretching from the border with Egypt to at least as far as Benghazi — the same region where Omar Mukhtar led resistance against Italian control in the 1920s and Gaddafi faced a revolt in the 1990s.

The revolt has spread as far as Tripoli, where Gaddafi is hanging onto power in the face of a mutiny among some officials and an international outcry over his attempts to crush the uprising. At least 1,000 people have been killed.

“The eastern region has always represented a permanent headache, to Italian colonialism and to the various rulers including the monarchy and Gaddafi,” said Saad Djebbar, a commentator and expert on North Africa.

Libya’s east, he added, had always been more influenced than other parts of the country to events in neighbouring Egypt, whose revolt against President Hosni Mubarak helped inspire the revolt against Gaddafi.


Gaddafi has ruled Libya since 1969, or most of the post-independence period of a country stitched together within its current borders in the middle of the 20th century, joining the province of Tripolitania with Cyrenaica in the east.

The tribes in the east have resented the patronage and privilege Gaddafi has bestowed over the those centered in and around Tripoli. “They have been complaining about an unfair distribution of resources,” said Claire Spencer, head of the Middle East programme at Chatham House in London. “It’s the concentration of the Gaddafi tribal networks in Tripoli that has favoured investment and patronage there over Benghazi,” she said.

Members of the Libyan security forces in the east are among those who have revolted against Gaddafi, their tribal affiliations having trumped any loyalty to the leader who is hanging onto power in Tripoli.

“Gaddafi has always thought that there are people in eastern Libya, in Benghazi and Ajdabiya and so on, that are not very trustworthy and not very loyal,” said Dirk Vandewalle, a Libya expert at Dartmouth College, in the United States. “Remember that Libya was kind of artificially created in 1951 and the provinces at the time, Cyrenaica where Benghazi is, and Tripolitania where Tripoli is, had very little in common.

“From the beginning there were issues with that partnership and that increased even further when oil was discovered that kind of straddled both provinces,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Christian Lowe; Writing by Tom Perry, editing by Peter Millership)

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