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Is Libya Cracking Up?

Karim Sahib/AFP/Getty Images
Libyan women waving the new Libyan flag (right) and the flag of the Amazigh people—often called Berbers—during an Amazigh festival in Tripoli, September 27, 2011. The indigenous Amazigh people are asking that a new Libyan constitution include official recognition of their language and culture, which had been prohibited by Muammar Qaddafi.

Eight months after Muammar Qaddafi’s overthrow, journalists seeking wars in Libya have to journey deep into the Sahara and beyond the horizons of most Libyans to find them. A senior official of Libya’s temporary ruling body, the National Transitional Council (NTC), flippantly waved away an invitation to leave his residence at the Rixos, Qaddafi’s palatial Tripoli hotel, to join a fact-finding delegation to Kufra, a trading post 1,300 kilometers to the southeast, near Sudan and Chad. “Isn’t it Africa?” he asks.

Yet for Libya’s new governors, the turbulent south—home to Libya’s wells of water and oil—is unnerving. Since Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the NTC chairman, declared an end to the civil war last October, the violence in the south is worse than it was during the struggle to oust Qaddafi. Hundreds have been killed, thousands injured, and, according to UN figures, tens of thousands displaced in ethnic feuding. Without its dictator to keep the lid on, the country, it seems, is boiling over the sides.

Kufra, some six hundred kilometers from the nearest Libyan town, epitomizes the postwar neglect. Several on the NTC’s nine-man mission I accompanied in late April were making their first visit there. The air of exuberance we felt flying aboard Qaddafi’s private jet and breakfasting on salmon-filled omelets cooked by his dashing stewardess, clad in a scarlet uniform, vanished as we began our descent. How much protection could we expect from the two members of the mission who had been included to protect the group and who had been recruited for the journey from the Kufra’s two fighting tribes—the Arab Zuwayy and the black Toubou? A NTC official criticized the pilot for approaching the runway from the town, where we made an easy target, not the desert. The airfield was deserted.

“We have a tradition of welcoming our guests,” said the Zuwayy’s tribal sheikh, Mohammed Suleiman, in less than welcoming tones, once we had found his mansion. “But we’re cursing this government for abandoning us to the Africans.” A room full of sixty tribesmen echoed his rebuke; since the revolution, members of the Toubou tribe had swarmed into the town and were threatening to wrest control of the oil fields nearby, he said. For the sheikh, the only solution was to expel them.

The catalyst for the fighting had been the NTC’s appointment of a Toubou leader to guard the Chad frontier, thus putting him in control of trans-Saharan smuggling, apparently as a reward for his support in the revolution. Gasoline, which in Libya is cheaper than water, subsidized flour, and guns go out; whisky and migrants come in. Though the Zuwayy had ten times as many Mercedes trucks as the Toubou, their incomes had plummeted. As animosities rose, the two tribes divided their mixed town of Kufra into fortified zones and fired mortars at each other’s houses. In fighting that followed this spring, 150 were killed.

After a communal meal of lambs’ heads served on vast tin trays, we crossed town to the Toubou quarter. Red-tiled Swiss-style villas gave way to African cinder-block shanties, some blackened by bombing. Tarmac roads led into sandy tracks. Where the Zuwayy had served us a feast on thick blood-red carpets, the Toubou poured glasses of goat yogurt. The Zuwayy had chandeliers; the Toubou had a flickering neon strip and sporadic blackouts. “The air-conditioning is broken,” their spokesmen apologized. The NTC delegates, who sat silently during the Zuwayys’ browbeating, now seemed like feudal lords chiding troublesome peasants; as we left they said the Toubou border guards were outlaws. The next day fighting flared. At a gathering of Libya’s many militias in Benghazi, nearly a thousand kilometers to the north, startled UN officials ducked for cover as Zuwayy and Toubou gunmen faced off in the corridors.

Some nine hundred kilometers west of Kufra as the crow or plane flies—for there are no roads—Sabha, the provincial capital of the southwestern Fezzan, also suffered from ethnic strife. On March 27, in the midst of a heated session of a local military council meeting to discuss the allocation of payments to former fighters, the representative of the Awlad Suleiman, another Arab tribe, shot three Toubou councilors dead. As the fighting spread, Arab snipers took to their villa rooftops and lobbed Katyusha rockets across the tin wall separating their neighborhood from the Toubou shantytown of Tayuri. Footage on their mobile phones shows tribesmen parking their tanks at Tayuri’s entrance and shelling its shacks. When the firing subsided three days later, the Toubou counted seventy-six dead in the shantytown alone. Scores more were killed on the roads.

Like the Toubou, North Africa’s indigenous Berbers—or Imazighen as they prefer to call themselves—depict Qaddafi’s rule as four decades of unremitting Arabization. To erase their ethnicity, they say, Qaddafi labeled them mountain Arabs, replaced their historic place-names with Arab ones, and suppressed the Ibadi school of Islam that many Imazighen follow on account of its more egalitarian bent. Unlike Sunnis, the mainstream Ibadi school opens up leadership of the Muslim community to all ethnic groups, not only the Quraish, the Prophet Muhammad’s Arab tribe. Qaddafi accused mothers who spoke the Amazigh tongue, Tifinagh, at home of feeding poison to their children.

While the Toubou number several tens of thousands, Amazigh leaders estimate—somewhat optimistically—that they make up 25 percent of Libya’s six million people. From the desert in the south, where they are called Tuareg, to the Berber town of Zwara on the coast, they have been more successful than the Toubou in sloughing off Qaddafi’s lingering Arabization. In Zwara, the brightly colored Amazigh flag flies from the lampposts and shops sport freshly painted signs in Tifinagh, their hitherto illicit script. Zwara’s Berber militias have seized control of the nearby Tunisian border and rampaged through Riqdaleen, a neighboring Arab town where the shopfronts remain stubbornly green, the color of Qaddafi’s regime. After Qaddafi’s son Khamis fled Tripoli at the head of his praetorian guard, the 32nd Brigade, in mid-August last year, he briefly found a safe haven in Riqdaleen. Even today, only 30 percent of the town supported the revolution, a member of the local council told me. He works as a Total oil field manager.

Riqdaleen’s Arabs have tried to fight back, not least for their border and its contraband profits. Last month, fighters in Riqdaleen captured twenty-nine Zwaran militiamen patrolling the border and beat them up, claiming they were trespassing. Only after the two towns had engaged in the ritual of lobbing missiles at each other’s houses, killing a few dozen people, and only after marauding Zwarans had destroyed Riqdaleen’s engineering college and torched several shops, did Zwara secure their release.

Both sides speak of arming for the battle ahead. Photographs of mutilated cadavers displayed on mobile phones ensure that the scars remain open. The graffiti that raiding Zwarans left on Riqdaleen’s walls threatened to turn the town into a “second Tuwagha,” the site inhabited by pro-Qaddafi black Libyans that militiamen from Misrata, further east, ethnically cleansed in the fall. “We don’t see a new Libya,” the Riqdaleen town councilor told me. “We’re starting to regret. The Berbers want us out.”

In what Riqdaleen fears is a precedent, Zwarans have evicted some seven hundred Arab workers from the housing compound of their chemical factory, Abu Kammash, saying the workers were complicit in Qaddafi’s plot to wipe their Berber town off the map. Since its opening in the 1980s—atop what Zwarans say is an old Amazigh graveyard—the plant employing these workers had spewed mercury and acid into the sea, poisoning the Zwarans’ fishing waters and population. The compound’s few remaining Arab residents cower from the Zwaran squatters who have taken over the empty houses, and wonder when their turn for eviction will come. They say Zwarans—violating Muslim law—spend their nights drunk on contraband whisky and frolicking with Tunisian prostitutes, as well as firing their guns into the sky. “They claim they are revolutionaries and therefore untouchable,” explains a teenage boy. Nasr, a former factory technician who has found refuge in Riqdaleen, says he has nightmares about Berber militiamen sleeping in his bed and wearing his clothes. “If this is the price we have to pay for freedom, it’s not worth it,” he says.

While separately none of the communal battles alone poses an immediate threat to Libya’s unity, the border skirmishes risk stirring broader upheavals that could pick apart Libya and its neighbors. Riqdaleen sees itself as a potential bridgehead for tens of thousands of Qaddafi supporters who have sought refuge in Tunisia and may return. Kufra’s feuding parties are attracting supporters from opposite ends of the Sahara, from the Mediterranean to the northern scrub land of Chad. Arab militiamen in Benghazi see a cause and an opportunity to fly the Prophet Muhammad’s black flag of jihad; the Toubou in Chad are anxious to repel an Arab attack on their fellow tribesmen. As the contents of Qaddafi’s armories spread across the region, gun markets are sprouting across middle-class Tunisia and fueling the low-level insurgency that Sinai’s Bedouin are waging against their Egyptian overseers. Equipped with their extensive bullion, Qaddafi’s surviving children—his son Saadi in Niamey, Niger, and daughter Aisha, in Algiers—stir up their old followers. Libya’s turmoil is acquiring continental significance.

Of all the ethnic movements that have surfaced since Qaddafi’s overthrow, that of the Imazighen has the greatest reach. In two months of travels across North Africa I repeatedly crossed paths with Fathi Khalifa, a highly articulate Berber from Zwara, wearing a silver suit and tie, who heads the World Amazigh Congress, a Paris-based organization promoting a pan–North African Berber revival. At an Amazigh gathering in Morocco I heard him advocating the revival of Tamazgha, the fabled Amazigh homeland stretching from the Canary Islands to Siwa, an Egyptian oasis. In Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square, I met him leading a rally celebrating Tafsaweet, the Amazigh spring, and demanding official recognition of Tifinagh, the Amazigh language, by the new Libya. At a tribal feast in Sabha, I found him wooing the Warfalla, Libya’s largest tribe—estimated at one million strong—with an etymological lesson on the Amazigh roots of their name.

Despite the obvious threat to their preeminence, many Arabs appear remarkably tolerant of ethnic rivals. Arab civil servants hire private teachers to learn Tifinagh. Arabic radio stations invite Khalifa to appear on chat shows. A civil rights movement staging an anti-militia protest at the same time and place as Khalifa’s rally in Tripoli invited Amazigh activists onto the podium to show their flags and address their supporters. Even when a protester cried (in Arabic) that one day Libyans would speak no tongue but Tifinagh, the hosts cheered. At one of Khalifa’s lectures in a public hall in Sabha, garlanded in Amazigh flags and pictures of such Berber icons as the Algerian soccer player Zinedine Zidane, Arabs almost outnumbered Imazighen.

Even so, there are limits. When Khalifa described Arabism as a foreign implant, there were gasps. When he described the seventh-century advent of Islam as a ghazu, or invasion, some walked out. Several heckled after he called the Islamic crescent on Libya’s flag “a relic of Turkish colonialism” and proposed replacing it with a trident, an Amazigh symbol. His backing for the Amazigh declaration of a separate homeland—Azawad—in northern Mali sparked fears that he had similar plans for Libya. Though he denied it, his Tuareg bodyguard told me that the arms he smuggled to Mali would one day help to push the borders of his Azawad homeland from Timbuktu north via Sabha to Spain. “Can’t you put your dreams on hold while we all get Libya back on its feet?” asked one of five imposing Arabs who confronted Khalifa as we sat in a Tripoli café sipping macchiatos.

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