From an article by Issandr El Amrani in the London Review of Books (April 28)
The current de facto division of Libya into east and west, roughly along the boundary of the old Ottoman provinces of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, reflects the absence of any historical links between the two regions. They are separated by a 300-mile stretch of desert.
Libya has no history of political unity before its creation by the U.N. on December, 24 1951.
In 1911, Italy, a latecomer to empire, decided to annex the two provinces. There was a brutal campaign of subjugation. According to one reliable source, the number of deaths between 1912 and 1942 was between 250,000 and 300,000, more than a quarter of the total population.
The Italians substantially weakened the power and social structure of the Cyrenaican tribes and the Senussi order. (The Senussi are a religious order founded in Mecca in 1857.)
The Italian colonial era left behind a traumatized population in some of the coastal towns.
The Italians sent 110,000 settlers. In Tripolitania, 40,000 are still there.
In 2009, on the occasion of the celebration of Gaddafi’s 40th year in power, Berlusconi opened a new coastal highway that Italy had financed. It was the price Italy paid for a share of Libya’s oil and arms contracts. On this occasion, a treaty of mutual friendship that prohibited war between the two countries was signed.
Before the arrival of oil in the late ’fifties, Libya was one of the poorest countries in the world with an annual income of $25 per capita, with an illiteracy rate of 94 percent. Libya received the highest U.S. aid per capita in the world.
Around 2000, Gaddafi, who had idolized Nasser, gave up his attempt to unify the Arab world and looked south instead, appointing himself King of Africa through generous chequebook diplomacy.
At the time of his coup in 1967 to replace King Idris, Gaddafi was a head of a minor tribe that had settled in the town of Sirte where most of the key officers of the army come from.
Throughout his 42 years of power, Gaddafi used Libya as a test-case for his ideal of statelessness based on a mishmash of Marxist ideology, his own peculiar distillation of Islamic history and idealized Bedouin values (egalitarianism, self-reliance).
Thanks to the redistribution of oil income, there is now a greater sense of Libyan unity than before.
The growing urbanization of the country has resulted in the slow decline of tribal and regional identity while standardized education and globalization have made the old debate about whether Libya should exist at all obsolete.