Libya: After Qaddafi – a break-up of Libya into Cyrenaica, Tripolitana and Rezzan?

What will happen to Libya? When we start thinking about this we quickly run up against a wall of ignorance. What do we know about Libya, except the out-sized personality of Muammar Qaddafi, that is? If we start be examining Libya from a geographic and territorial perspective a picture emerges of a state that came into being with little or no ‘glue’ which previously held the three regions of Cyrenaica, Tripolitana and Rezzan together.

Libya came into being in 1951 through a UN General Assembly resolution 289. This resolution came as a response the need to deal with the former Italian colonies, where Libya was one. In this resolution it is stated that: “…Libya, comprising of Cyrenaica, Tripolitana and Rezzan, shall be constituted an independent and sovereign State”. But what was the relationship between these three regions prior to the formation of Libya in 1951?

The area what is today Tripoli and the province of Tripolitana was settled by the Carthage in 5 the century BC. Greece colonized what is today Cyrenaica beginning in the 6th century BC. After the defeat of Carthage in the third Punic war the Roman Empire ruled a Tripoli that retained flavours of the Carthaginian culture. Roman ruled Cyrenaica on the other hand heavy influence from Greece. Tripolitana and Cyrenaica also formed two different administrative areas within the Roman Empire. During Byzantine rule, the Vandals had a brief control over the Tripolitana area while, at that time, Cyrenaica remained a Byzantine outpost until the re-conquest by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century AD. During the different Arab dynasties that ruled the area, the Libya was never treated as a region of it own.

During the rule of the Ottoman Empire in what is today Libya, from 1551 to 1912, three different administrative units existed – Tripolitana in the west, centred around the city of Tripoli, Cyrenaica in the east and south and Rezzan, a mostly desert area to the south of Tripolitana.

In 1912 after a war Between Italy and the Ottoman Empire that lasted just over a year Italy gained control over Cyrenaica, Tripolitana and Rezzan. From 1912 – 1927 Libya was known as Italian North Africa. And from 1927 to 1934 what is today Libya was divided into two colonies – Italian Cyrenaica and Italian Tripolitana. In 1934 they merged and was renamed by the Italian ‘Libya’.

In 1920 Italy recognized Sheikh Sidi Idris of the political-religious Senussi order, with its stronghold in the province of Cyrenaica, as Emir of that province. But this was not to last. In 1929 Italy launched a crack-down against the Senussi-order after they had engaged efforts to liberate Cyrenaica and Sidi Idris fled to Egypt.

From 1943 until 1951 Tripolitana and Cyrenaica were under UK administrative rule Rezzan administered by France. In 1949 the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling for Libya, comprising of the provinces of Tripolitana, Cyrenaica and Rezzan, to become independent before January 1st 1952.

But before Libya came into being there was another state, briefly. With support from the UK Sheikh Sidi Idris proclaimed himself Emir of the state of Cyrenaica in 1949. It is said that he only reluctantly accepted the position of King of Libya in 1951, with two provinces, Tripolitana and Rezzan with little or no support for the Sennusi-order.

When Cyrenaica now is reasserting its historical role will this also weaken the fabric of a state with historically weak ties between the three regions and kept weak, with little of no civil society, by the 42 year rule of the dictator Muammar Qaddafi?


About Leif Eriksson

Leif Eriksson has worked in the field of asylum at the Swedish Migration Agency specializing in the Middle East, Schengen and the Dublin Regulation, as Migration Attaché and head of the migration section at the Swedish Embassy in Damascus 2005 - 2008, as a resettlement consultant at the UNHCR branch office in Damascus 2008 - 2009, Consul at the Swedish Consulate General in Jerusalem 2012 - 2013 and associate RSD/RST officer at UNHCR in Beirut 2013 - 2014. He currently lives in Tbilisi, Georgia.
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