[Dehai-WN] Weekly.ahram.org.eg/2: Ottomans, Arabs, Westerners and Libya

[Dehai-WN] Weekly.ahram.org.eg/2: Ottomans, Arabs, Westerners and Libya

From: Berhane Habtemariam <Berhane.Habtemariam_at_gmx.de_at_dehai.org>
Date: Fri, 25 Nov 2011 14:29:42 +0100

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

24 - 30 November 2011


http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2011/1072/_fo01.jpgClick to view caption

Clockwise from top left: Abdulhamit; Ataturk; Gaddafi


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.


      ------------[ Sent via the dehai-wn mailing list by dehai.org]--------------

(image/jpeg attachment: image001.jpg)

Received on Fri Nov 25 2011 - 08:30:01 EST
© Copyright DEHAI-Eritrea OnLine, 2001
All rights reserved