Cyrenaica Contemporary: Politics, Identity, and Justice in Times of Transition

The region of Cyrenaica (Barqa in Arabic) covers the entire eastern part of Libya, and alongside Tripolitania in the west and Fezzan in the south forms one of the three major regions of the country. Historically, Cyrenaica has been distinguished from its neighbours by its heavy reliance on a desert pastoral economy and its Arab nomadic Bedouin society (Peters 1990). Nevertheless, Cyrenaica has played a very influential role in the cultural, political and social formation of modern Libya. It represented the heartland of the Senussi order (1843–1969), was a stronghold of the resistance movement against Italian colonial rule in Libya (1911–1943), and was the home of the cultural and political foundation of modern Libya under the rule of King Idris (1951–1969) (Ahram 2019, 77f; Evans-Pritchard [1949] 1973; Hüsken 2019, 41f). In 1964 and 1967, students in Cyrenaica protested against the pro-western orientation of the king and the growing corruption in the country, thereby contributing to Cyrenaica’s image as a rebellious region. However, during the rule of Gaddafi, Cyrenaica suffered from a process of marginalization and administrative neglect (Davis 1987; Vandewalle 2006), partly due to the reluctance of traditional authorities to accept the policies of Gaddafi, and more explicitly because of the resistance of oppositional forces mainly with Islamist backgrounds (Pargeter 2008; Fitzgerald 2015). In addition, the mismatch between the rich oil reserves of the region and the lack of redistribution of this wealth in Cyrenaica led to collective feelings of marginalization and mistrust regarding economic policies in the era of Gaddafi (St. John 2008). In 2011, Cyrenaica became the flashpoint of the revolutionary upheaval against Muammar Gaddafi. However, for the people of Cyrenaica this engagement has not resulted in an enhancement of their political position within Libya. The toppling of Gaddafi did not lead to significant changes in the alleged or de facto political asymmetry between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica (Ahram 2019). Against the background of the civil war in Libya, Cyrenaica has been characterized as the adversary camp of the internationally recognized government in Tripolitania. Despite such a categorization, academic publications (including the papers of think tanks and the work of journalists) on Libya tend to neglect Cyrenaica, and are often based on research conducted in Tripolitania or in the para-sovereign city of Misrata. We aim to fill this gap in the research. It is important to emphasize that our focus on Cyrenaica does not imply any political positioning with regard to ongoing debates and disputes on regionalism in Libya. However, despite the undeniable shared history of Tripolitania, Fezzan, and Cyrenaica, these regions have also played distinct and independent roles in the history of modern Libya. The populations of the three regions have distinct cultural traditions and practices, identities, and transnational references. Tripolitania is closely linked to the countries of the Maghreb, Fezzan forms part of the trans-Saharan continuum, and Cyrenaica is closely linked to the Mashreq. We are convinced that a close, empirically grounded analysis (instead of testing hypotheses) of one of Libya’s regions will also contribute to an understanding of the country as a whole.

Our research project seeks to investigate the following issues within the current developments in Cyrenaica along four interconnected research streams: 1. Politics in Cyrenaica: State politics, Non-state politics, and Political Economy; 2. The Making of Identity in Cyrenaica; 3. Politics, Practices, and Understandings of Justice; and 4. Ethical and Methodological Challenges for Research in Dangerous Fields. Gender is a crosscutting theme in all streams, and will allow us to reach beyond the prevailing male bias (that is, towards male activism and practices) in research on the region. Our research will be based on a number of research methods, such as participant observation, in-depth-interviews, and focus groups.

The project combines two disciplines (political anthropology and political science) and two different angles of academic tradition and education: those of a German ethnographer and a Libyan political scientist. The asymmetrical relationship between Libyan and Western academic production on Libya in which the former has been and continues to be underrated or overlooked (particularly on the Western international level) is a highly problematic matter. Seminal publications on politics in Libya have been predominantly presented by Western scholars like Evans-Pritchard ([1949] 1973), Peters (1990), Davis (1987), Vandewalle (2006, 2008), Mattes (2008), Hüsken (2019), and Lacher (2020). Only a few Libyan academics, such as Ali Abdullatif Ahmida (1994, 2006, 2020), Mansour El-Kikhia (1997), Amal Obeidi (2001), and Youssef Sawani (2017), have gained attention in Western academia. Through the joint research, interpretation, and publication of the research results of a German ethnographer and a Libyan political scientist, the project will engage with the postcolonial critique that tackles the hegemony of Western academic production about the global south in general and Libya in particular. Thus, the project will contribute to what can be termed the “decolonization of Libyan studies."

Ahmida, Ali Abdullatif. 1994. The Making of Modern Libya: State Formation, Colonization, and Resistance, 1830–1932. SUNY Series in the Social and Economic History of the Middle East. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
________. 2006. “When the Subaltern Speak: Memory of Genocide in Colonial Libya 1929 to 1933.” Italian Studies 61 (2): 175–190.
________. 2020. Genocide in Libya: Shar, a Hidden Colonial History. London: Routledge.

Ahram, Ariel I. 2019. Break All the Borders: Separatism and the Reshaping of the Middle East. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Davis, John. 1987. Libyan Politics: Tribe and Revolution. London: I.B. Tauris.

Evans-Pritchard, Edward E. (1949) 1973. The Sanusi of Cyrenaica. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fitzgerald, Mary. 2015. “Finding Their Place: Libya’s Islamists During and After the Revolution.” In The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath, edited by Peter Cole and Brian McQuinn, 177–204. London: Hurst.

Hüsken, Thomas. 2019. Tribal Politics in the Borderland of Egypt and Libya. Palgrave Series in African Borderlands Studies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

El-Kikhia, Mansour O. 1997. Libya’s Qaddafi: The Politics of Contradiction. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.

Lacher, Wolfram. 2020. Libya’s Fragmentation: Structure and Process in Violent Conflict. London, New York: IB Tauris.

Mattes, Hans Peter. 2008. “Formal and Informal Authority in Libya since 1969.” In Libya Since 1969. Qadhafi’s Revolution Revisited, edited by Dirk Vandewalle, 55–81. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Obeidi, Amal. 2001. Political Culture in Libya. Richmond, Surrey, UK: Curzon Press.

Pargeter, Alison. 2008. “Qadhafi and Political Islam in Libya.” In Libya Since 1969. Qadhafi’s Revolution Revisited, edited by Dirk Vandewalle, 83–104. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Peters, Emrys L. 1990. The Bedouin of Cyrenaica: Studies in Personal and Corporate Power. Edited by J. Goody and E. Marx. Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology, no. 72. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sawani, Youssef Mohammad. 2017. “Security Sector Reform, Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration of Militias: the Challenges for State Building in Libya.” Contemporary Arab Affairs 10 (2): 171–186.

St. John, Ronald Bruce. 2008. “The Libyan Economy in Transition: Opportunities and Challenges.” In Libya Since 1969. Qadhafi’s Revolution Revisited, edited by Dirk Vandewalle, 127–151. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Vandewalle, Dirk. 2006. A History of Modern Libya. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
________, ed. 2008. Libya Since 1969. Qadhafi’s Revolution Revisited. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.