Ottomans, Arabs, Westerners and Libya
One hundred years separates the Italian invasion of Libya in 1911 and the NATO-led intervention against the Gaddafi regime. Is this figure a coincidence, or are there lessons to be learned, asks Ahmed El-Tonsi
The title of this article is close to that of one of the most fascinating books on the Arab-Ottoman relationship ever written, which was by Mohamed Afify and was published a few years ago. In this book, Afify revised some of the controversial issues pertinent to the Ottoman Empire and its Arab subjects and how the latter perceived their allegiance to the Sublime Porte.
Evidently, many Arabs always felt they were part of the Ottoman world with its pan-Islamic ideology. The latter attracted many Muslims across the world, including the Arabs, and it mobilised Islamic sentiments among a majority of them, particularly during the reign of Sultan Abdulhamit II (ruled 1876-1909). Egyptians were among those Arabs, and the early 20th century witnessed a fierce debate between different factions inside the Egyptian intelligentsia over the nature of the relationship between the Sublime Porte and the Egyptians.
Debate was so tough that the famous Taba Incident was a typical example of political polarisation. In this case, many people, including the national leader Mustafa Kamel and his companions, being influenced by the Ottoman pan-Islamic policy, supported Ottoman claims for Taba against the British, who were denying this piece of Egyptian land to the Porte. Interestingly, debates of this kind are even now going on among many intellectuals regarding the issue of the Islamic caliphate. Put differently, the issue of past relations with the Ottoman Empire as the seat of caliphate continues to stir debate over the nature of the Arab states, as well as the Arab nation, or in this case the umma, or Islamic community. In effect, such debates are at the heart of the ongoing crisis affecting our relatively new states, in which we encounter the eternal dichotomy of a religious versus a secular state system.
The Ottoman Empire was the last caliphal state, and some people over many decades have longed for its return. It was the last political entity that grouped Muslims together by offering a supra-national form of loyalty that was revered by many and in some cases transcended de novo nationalities and loyalties. Among the events that sparked public debate among Egyptian intellectuals as the empire came to a close was the Italian invasion of Libya in 1911. Noteworthy here was not Arab nationalism, at that time still in its infancy, but supra-national loyalty to the Ottoman state, even though a growing number of people at the time were alienated from the main current of Ottoman statehood, and there was an increasing number of Turkish nationalists within the Ottoman government.
However, even so, Egyptian popular support for the Libyan people in their fight against the Italian invasion was mainly driven by a strong belief in the Ottoman caliphate as a religious institution and not any endorsement of nascent Arab nationalism. In fact, the Libyan invasion constituted the first crack between the Arabs and their supra-national belonging, exemplified in the Ottoman caliphate, and it became a point of departure and strong impetus for rising Arab nationalism and its adherents. According to Abdel-Rahman Azzam, the Egyptian nationalist and first secretary-general of the Arab League, "the Republic of Tripoli decisively marked the shift to Arabism."
Dates are sometimes perplexing in history. A century has elapsed between the Italian invasion of Libya in October 1911 and the violent end of the rule of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in October 2011. The first event, the Italo-Ottoman War, ended in Libya seceding from the Ottoman Empire to become an Italian colony, whereas the second has become the starting point for a new era in Libya's history. The fact that there is exactly 100 years between the two events is a coincidence, and insisting on it is a mathematical exercise. However, linking the two events allows us to come closer to the actors in both wars and to identify the changes that have taken place. While there have been draconian changes, there have also been certain continuities.
In 2011, for example, the Arab governments showed a mix of shifting alliances, inaction, and sometimes even apathy towards the evolving crisis, in contrast to the supportive role played by the Arab peoples during the Italian invasion of Libya in 1911. These changes could be historically justified in terms of the policy changes that may happen within the foreign policy of a given state over a 100-year span. Yet, what remains peculiar to Libya and to many other Arab countries is the fact that after 100 years of regional and global transformations, the Arab states are still facing fundamental problems with nation as well as state-building.
In the case of Libya, the 100-year period has ended with a potential partition scenario. Similarly, it has resulted in a civil war that has required the intervention of many of the same old actors, with nearly the same old political and economic agendas. It can be said that in Libya, and in many other Arab countries, three successive regimes, Ottoman, European imperialist and post-independence, have failed to lay the foundations of a genuine state. No less significantly, the two supra-national identities, namely the Islamic and Arab nationalist, have not altered the factionalised and tribal nature of Libyan society.
Many other Arab states share such traits, including the existence of multiple sub-national identities that have not fully coalesced to form a unified nation. Two major historical actors, the Ottoman Empire and then the European colonising powers, now replaced by Turkey and the Western powers, participated in one way or another in shaping the events of 1911 and 2011. It is not just faulty state and nation-building, so evident in Libya and elsewhere in the region, that should be the lessons learned from these events for global politics. Other lessons should also be learned from the similarities, as well as the dissimilarities, between the events of 1911 and 2011.
Perhaps the actors -- Ottomans, Arabs and the Western powers -- have remained in some way essentially the same, even as they have undergone vast transformations between the two events in terms of their compositions, motives and stands in each crisis. In 1911, there were two contending forces: the Ottomans and Arabs on one side and the Italians on the other. In 2011, all the actors aligned together to fight against Gaddafi. Changes in many of the actors have been tremendous and fundamental, including in Libya itself, which became an independent monarchy in 1951. Most serious of all for Libya and its history was the discovery of oil some years later, which transformed the country's fortunes on a regional and global level.
The nature of the two events was also very different. In 1911, the war was an Italian imperialist endeavour that should be related to its historical context, as the major powers geared up for World War I, even as the Ottoman Empire, "the sick man of Europe", was nearing its last days. The war in 2011, by contrast, was a Libyan civil war between revolutionary Libyans leading the fight against Gaddafi and his supporters in a country that came to the front of the world stage when other actors joined the revolutionary camp.
Different contexts on the regional and global levels also shaped the current Libyan revolution. The Arab Spring on the regional level catalysed the revolutionaries in Libya, while the so-called New World Order with its emerging political and economic realities has been contributing to the nascent revolution and its path and future. Reflecting the growing complexity of the regional and global contexts, two de novo actors also participated in the 2011 events: the Arab League and the United Nations.
The Ottomans were present in the 1911 events, as Libya, then formed of the Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan provinces, was Ottoman territory. Though this was only nominally the case in some periods of its history from 1551 to 1911, the country nevertheless still remained Ottoman territory on the eve of the Italian invasion. In 2011, Turkey, the Ottoman Empire's successor state, dubbed by some commentators as being under "New Ottoman" leadership, actively steered events, acting first as a mediator between Gaddafi and the revolutionaries and then becoming a strong supporter of the NATO-led action against the Gaddafi forces.
Turkey participated in the embargo on Gaddafi-held Libyan ports, and, as a NATO member, it was one of the countries that launched the campaign against Gaddafi as well. Indeed, the role played by Turkey in the alliance was crucial to its formation and operation and its coordination with the Libyan revolutionaries. In other words, in 2011 Turkey was with the Western powers in their pursuit of toppling the Gaddafi regime. This dual role played by Turkey reflects its preferred positioning as a bridge between its neighbours, predominantly the Arab states, and Western countries. Acting as a regional power that should not be ignored or downplayed, the New Ottomans in Ankara have changed their approach to a region that is no longer under their suzerainty. This new approach capitalises on the "soft power" of the shared culture of many of the peoples living in this part of the world, and how this shared culture can be leveraged to its advantage by Turkey.
To their credit, the ruling Justice and Development Party governments in Ankara have been able to restore a great part of Turkey's power and geopolitical importance, both of which suffered a hit in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War. Out of the 2011 Libyan Revolution Turkey has emerged as a victorious and formidable power that has been playing a dynamic role in reshaping the region and aligning it to Turkish foreign-policy strategies and objectives. Ironically, many have criticised Turkey for its involvement in the Arab world, saying that Turkey has "its own agenda", as if the foreign policy of any state was a charitable exercise and as if Turkey, with its common geography and history with the Arabs, were the only country intervening in their affairs.
In contrast to Turkey's triumphant performance in 2011, its predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, was forced to come to the negotiating table after the bombardment of Beirut and the success of the Italian ships in entering the Dardanelles Straits in July 1912. Decisive in Ottoman acceptance of the Italian annexation of Libya were the rising Balkan threats that soon turned into the First Balkan War, an important milestone on the path to World War I. The Ottoman withdrawal from Libya was negatively perceived by the Libyans and their supporters, and it represented the beginning of the separation between the Arabs and the Ottoman Empire under the latter's new leadership of the Society of Union and Progress.
WITH THE END OF WORLD WAR I, the Arab territories that had formerly belonged to the Ottoman Empire were divided up by Britain and France according to the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Finally, the Ottoman sultanate was abolished and replaced by the Turkish Republic led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, himself in Libya during the fight against the Italian invasion in 1911. The New Ottomans will not withdraw as their ancestors did in 1911. Rather, they will now stay in Libya, this time without an army, and with the different objective of sustaining their preeminent regional role.
In 1911, the Arabs were in Libya fighting against the Italians. Joining the Ottoman Expeditionary Forces and the Libyans led by the Sounsi tribe were individual Egyptian, Tunisian and Algerian volunteers, who participated in many of the war's events. The Egyptians, then under British tutelage, were prevented from joining the combined Turkish-Arab forces at the time. On the pretext of maintaining Egypt's neutrality in the conflict, the British general Lord Kitchener refused to allow Egypt to participate in the war, and Ottoman forces were not allowed to use Egyptian territory for military purposes.
Egyptians at the time were moved to support the caliphate and the Ottoman state. Generous donations were collected for individual volunteers and the Libyan fighters, and these were gathered from across Egypt by notables and even members of the then royal family like Touson Pasha, who collected more than LE100 in less than half an hour in one Egyptian city. The mobilisation of the Bedouin in the Western Desert to join the Libyan mujahideen was also encouraged. Calls for jihad against the Italian invasion came loud and clear in many parts of Egypt, to the extent that on 2 November 1911, martial law was proclaimed in Cairo in response to the Egyptian people's growing unrest over the Libyan war with Italy.
The nationalist leader Lutfi El-Sayed, among others in the Umma Party, was against Egypt becoming embroiled in the evolving war, emphasising the need for the country to focus its resources on its own population instead of getting involved in emotional causes that could deprive the nation of achieving its rightful ambitions and dreams. However, El-Sayed's views were widely rejected, with the result that he was accused of atheism, and as a result he resigned from the party newspaper.
The 2011 war was very different in terms of outside intervention. Apart from a few hundred Qatari soldiers and planes sent from Jordan and the United Arab Emirates, the Libyans were fighting each other as far as the Arabs were concerned, even as Gaddafi progressively lost contact with reality. The Egyptians at the time were preoccupied with their own January 2011 Revolution, which itself had acted as a model for the Libyans and others around the world. Save for some lip-service hailing the struggle of their Libyan brothers, the Egyptians were more concerned by the country's own January Revolution, and other Arabs also largely looked on, apprehensive about the failure of successive regimes in Libya, regardless of their type and ideology.
This was the Arab Spring that many Arabs had yearned for at last. Yet, it was also clear that hundreds of thousands of Egyptian expatriate workers were working in appalling conditions in Libya as a result of the civil conflict in that country and at the whim of an apparently mentally disturbed leader, who had long exhibited a myriad of contradictory forms of behaviour towards Egypt and Egyptians. Similar to what had happened in 1911, when Egyptians were denied access to Libya, in 2011 many Egyptians in Libya could not move back to Egypt even as they were suffering the perils of a protracted civil conflict that nearly caused Libya to regress to the primitive conditions of 1911.
The sizable Egyptian community in Libya put the ruling Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in a critical situation, bearing in mind the virtual absence of the Libyan state and institutions. Egypt's official stand was never fully crystallised, unlike its officially declared neutrality in 1911. The same could be said about Egyptians themselves, who, in 1911, had been major supporters of the Libyans in their struggle against the Italian invasion, even as in 2011 they were preoccupied with their own problems and were only able to make a very limited contribution to the evolving crisis on their borders.
Claims of supra-national loyalty, Islamic or Arab nationalist, were not raised during the Libyan conflict, despite the fact that the Libyan revolutionaries had counterparts among the Muslim Brotherhood, the jihadists and Arab nationalists. Similarly, the Libyan revolutionaries did not call on their comrades in either Egypt or Tunisia to join them. In Egypt, such calls could have exerted pressures on the government to put Egypt in a better position to participate in re-establishing the Libyan state, and there should have been more contributions from Egyptian Islamist and Arab nationalist trends in augmenting Egypt's visibility in the Libyan revolution.
During World War I, Egyptians participated in the Libyan struggle against the Italian occupation. Abdel-Rahman Azzam, for example, participated in the Libyan resistance against the Italians from 1915 to 1923, helping to establish an Arab authority in Tripoli under the leadership of the Sounsi clan. Though the world of 1911 was completely different from what it is today, Egypt's government and political forces in 2011 should have tried harder to emulate the determination of a man like Azzam in reshaping Libya after its occupation by Italy. It is the near-absence of such visionary leaders today among Egypt's political forces and revolutionaries that has rendered the Egyptian performance throughout the Libyan revolution such a poor one.
It has to be remembered that in 1911 Egypt did not have what were later called political parties, either with an Islamic reference or with an Arab nationalist orientation. Egypt then only had men like Azzam, who nevertheless had a genuine vision about Egypt's role and security. No less importantly, such men also served as an inspiration to Libyans in 2011, who in many cases asked for their support and advice. Regrettably in 2011, men of the caliber of Azzam seem not to have existed in Egypt.
Yet, this cross-border ambivalence may be partially ascribed to the Libyan revolutionaries' own appeal to foreign powers for assistance, which was not welcomed by certain sectors within the Islamist and Arab nationalist trends. Nevertheless, the Libyan revolution was, is, and will remain an Arab revolution launched by the alienated masses. The Libyan war of 2011 was a civil war, and there are still ambiguities about its actors and its course. This is not to say that Egyptian volunteers should have participated in the war. Categorically, this is not the case. Rather, revolutionary Egypt, with all its political forces, should have had more visibility, as well as played a more meaningful role, in the Libyan struggle against Gaddafi.
Like in 1911, calls for jihad were made in 2011, though this time they came from Gaddafi himself against the NATO raids, which he described as "crusades." These jihadist calls did not deter Gaddafi from hiring mercenaries to fight against his own people. There were no mercenaries in the 1911 war. Gaddafi's appeals for support went unheard by Egyptians and by Bedouin tribes, despite his lucrative offers. In one of his last speeches, Gaddafi warned that he would not tolerate discrimination against what he called "Libyan tribes" living in Egypt, and it should be remembered that since the 1970s Gaddafi had been unsuccessfully trying to manipulate the tribes against Egypt.
What seemed new in the 2011 Libyan Revolution was the fact that the Arab League acted as a forum for the Arab states in dealing with the Libyan war. It was the Arab League that legitimised the NATO action against Gaddafi. Amr Moussa, then secretary-general of the League, appealed to the UN Security Council, which passed the resolutions that authorised NATO to enforce military strikes against Gaddafi's regime. This appeal should not be seen only as a sign of the decadence of the Arab system in dealing with Arab crises. Rather, it also illustrates how selective the League has been in dealing with similar situations in Yemen and Syria.
THE THIRD GROUP OF ACTORS in the two events was made up of the Western powers. Only Italy was in the field in 1911, though the other imperialist countries indirectly participated in the war. France, for example, signed a secret agreement with Italy giving the latter a free hand in Libya in exchange for reciprocal treatment in countries where France had or would have interests. In 2011, the Western powers were represented by NATO, and they participated in the war on the side of the revolutionaries. More than 12 countries joined the coalition, including Turkey, the heir of the Ottoman Empire which had fought against the Italians in 1911.
NATO's participation in the war was based upon a UN Security Council Resolution that gave the alliance authorisation to use "all necessary means" to protect civilians against Gaddafi and his forces. It would be redundant to talk about NATO's mission and the different views of it and whether it should or should not have joined forces with the revolutionaries. What matters is that the revolutionaries "outsourced" some of the combat, as well as the reconnaissance activities, to NATO on a fee-for-service basis whose terms will no doubt soon be disclosed. It was a simple business decision, based upon a cost-benefit analysis that has been made many times before across the region since the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Countries like Yemen or Syria cannot afford this type of outsourcing and their people are still suffering from the brutality of correspondingly failing regimes.
A new coalition, the Friends of Libya, has now been formed, the purpose of which is to supervise the transition period and the ways in which Libya's oil money will now be spent. Yet, this won't be the end of the story either. Libya is not a "geographical expression", as the 19th-century Austro-Hungarian politician Metternich once famously described Italy as being prior to its unification. Rather, it is an important oil-producing country that serves the global economy. It can't be left to address its own affairs without the "advice" of major stakeholders in the global economy. The Western powers have lost two major allies in former Egyptian and Tunisian presidents Hosni Mubarak and Zein Al-Abidine bin Ali, and the Arab Spring is still sweeping the region in unpredictable ways. As a result, Libya is of increasing importance, particularly within the current context of the Arab Spring.
To repeat, the Libyan Revolution is an Arab revolution that should be supported at this critical juncture. Though some scenes were reminiscent of the Iraqi tragedy, the first act was a totally Libyan one with no hired, imposed or opportunistic actors taking part. The Libyan revolution was an indigenous national struggle that saw hundreds of martyrs before the NATO intervention. It was not a repeat of what the Iraqi exile Ahmed Shalabi and others brought about in Iraq. We should bear this in mind when dealing with the Libyan revolution and revolutionaries. Egypt's reluctance to act is dangerous, as the character of the New Libya is a national-security issue for Egypt that we should pay attention to.
The divided nature of Libya and of the Libyans should now be ended, and Egypt should take the upper hand in bringing about the reconciliation of the Libyan nation. In a sense, we do not really even have Western borders: they were artificially drawn by the imperialists of the 20th century, leaving the seeds of instability everywhere in their former colonies. Nevertheless, Egypt should make sure that Libya stays unified within its current borders, and any thought of the country's partition should be properly addressed, as this could carry elements of instability across the border.
The tribes in the Egyptian Western Desert have strong links with their brethren in the Libyan Desert, and this should also be kept in mind when addressing national reconciliation in Libya. The condition of the Arab tribes should be carefully considered by Egypt in view of the ongoing arrangements in Libya, and indeed former president Anwar El-Sadat in the 1970s was always very much attuned to the issue through the work of his confidant Mahmoud Abu Wafieh, who had networks among the tribes within this region. Whether Libya now becomes a republic or a monarchy is a purely Libyan choice. We can offer our experience and expertise, but the selection of the type of political system is a Libyan affair alone.
The Egyptian role now is to work with all the factions, sects and trends in Libya, remembering that in 1969 Egypt supported Gaddafi in the early days of his rule while also giving asylum to Libya's last and only king. This is exactly the role that Egypt has always played in respecting the aspirations of the Arab people, while not necessarily pandering to their governors. We must fulfil this role, not just because the Arab dimension represents an inner circle of Egypt's foreign policy, but also because such a role is of paramount importance to our own national security. Under no circumstances should Egypt allow the establishment of foreign military bases in Libya.
EGYPT HAS ALL THE CREDENTIALS to help streamline the process of national reconciliation in Libya. Culturally, Egypt is closer to Libya than many of the newcomers on the scene. Not unrelated to this is Egypt's own new revolutionary spirit, which can be a source of confidence to the Libyan revolutionaries in dealing with post-Mubarak Egypt. Since in some sense it missed the first scenes of the Libyan revolution, it is now more than ever important that Egypt becomes a partner in the crucial acts that are to follow.
Libya's 100-year history since the 1911 Italian invasion started with loyalty to the fading Ottoman caliphate, and thousands of Libyans fighting for the country's remaining part of the institution. Starting in solidarity among the Libyan tribes and their co-religionists against an invading colonising power, this hundred years has now ended with the new Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) appealing to the former colonisers to help topple a supposedly national and independent regime, being that of the former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. However, none of these adjectives can properly be used to describe the Gaddafi era.
With the end of the Libyan state's first 100 years, two contending supra-national loyalties still exist, though neither offers a formula for the Libyan people, who are striving to redeem their basic rights. Modern Turkey, with its New Ottoman leadership, offers a paradigm of the Islamist trend, which has gone beyond a conventional understanding of Islam, while the Western powers have been offering a contemporary model of union not based on romanticism, like Arab nationalism. Any adoption of a flawed model of supra-national loyalty, when coupled with defective state-building, will perpetuate the resurgence of sub-national loyalties, whether in the form of community, sect, race or clan. In essence, this has been the net result of 100 years of Libyan statehood, as it has in many other Arab countries.
For advocates of Arab nationalism and pan-Islamic ideology, the Arab Spring was an opportunity to seize power. Yet, these two trends have not necessarily thought outside their own borders, though they have offered at least moral support and a sense of comradeship and solidarity. The Egyptian revolutionaries have done the same. Seeing the Arab Spring as a purely Egyptian event would be a historical mistake, as it is an event that has led to the outbreak of revolutions across the Arab world. It will catalyse the process of change in a highly stagnant region that has just started to feel hopes of surmounting the current impasse that all Arab countries have been passing through.
Libya, like many countries in the Arab world, is today at a critical juncture and is looking for a way forward. Its past as an independent country has been relatively short, and as a genuine state it has been even shorter. After 100 years, supra-national loyalties still loom particularly large, notably that of the political Islamic trend. While Arab nationalism has not yet emerged from its various setbacks, the Arab Spring, with its sweeping Arab context, still represents a new and vibrant chapter in Arab nationalism.
History and geography tell us a lot about the importance of Libya for Egypt and for Egyptians. The new Libya represents far more than just construction contracts and the possibility of rebuilding its damaged infrastructure. Instead, the new Libya is a national-security issue for Egypt and one that should receive appropriate support. Libya's lost century of the last 100 years represents a common phenomenon across an entire region that was once called Ottoman, then Arab, and finally now the Middle East.
The writer is a political analyst.