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Italian Rule and Arab Resistance

For many Arabs, Turkey's surrender in Libya was a betrayal of Muslim interests to the infidels. The 1912 Treaty of Lausanne was meaningless to the beduin tribesmen who continued their war against the Italians, in some areas with the aid of Turkish troops left behind in the withdrawal. Fighting in Cyrenaica was conducted by Sanusi units under Ahmad ash Sharif, whose followers in Fezzan and southern Tripolitania prevented Italian consolidation in those areas as well. Lacking the unity imposed by the Sanusis, resistance in northern Tripolitania was isolated, and tribal rivalries made it less effective. Urban nationalists in Tripoli theorized about the possibility of establishing a Tripolitanian republic, perhaps associated with Italy, while Suleiman Baruni, a Berber and a former member of the Turkish parliament, proclaimed an independent but short-lived Berber state in the Gharyan region. For the beduins, however, unencumbered by any sense of nationhood, the purpose of the struggle against the colonial power was defending Islam and the free life they had always enjoyed in their tribal territory.

In 1914 the Sanusis counterattacked in Fezzan, quickly wiping out recent Italian gains there, and in April 1915 they inflicted heavy casualties on an Italian column at Qasr Bu Hadi in the Sirtica. Captured rifles, artillery, and munitions fueled a subsequent Sanusi strike into Tripolitania, but the success of the campaign was compromised by the traditional hostility that existed between the beduins and the nationalists.

When Italy joined the Allied Powers in 1915, the first ItaloSanusi war (1914-17) in Cyrenaica became part of the world war. Germany and Turkey sent arms and advisers to Ahmad, who aligned the Sanusis with the Central Powers with the objective of tying down Italian and British troops in North Africa. In 1916, however, Turkish officers led the Sanusis on a campaign into Egypt, where they were routed by British forces. Ahmad gave up Sanusi political and military leadership to Idris and fled to Turkey aboard a German submarine. The pro-British Idris opened negotiations with the Allies on behalf of Cyrenaica in 1917. The result was, in effect, a truce rather than a conclusive peace treaty, for neither the Italians nor the Sanusis fully surrendered their claims and control in the region. Britain and Italy recognized Idris as amir of interior Cyrenaica, with the condition that Sanusi attacks on coastal towns and into Egypt cease. Further consideration of Cyrenaica's status was deferred until after the war.

Although the victorious Allied Powers accepted Italy's sovereignty in Libya, Italian forces there at the end of World War I were still confined to the coastal enclaves, sometimes under conditions of siege. A campaign was initiated to consolidate and expand Italian-held territory in 1919, but the colonial policy pursued by the Italian government was moderate and accommodating. Steps were taken toward granting limited political rights to the people in occupied areas. The provinces of Cyrenaica and Tripolitania were treated as separate colonies, and Fezzan was organized as a military territory. The Fundamental Law approved by the Italian parliament in 1919 provided for provincial parliaments and for local advisory councils appointed by the Italian governors and district executives in the occupied areas.

The different settlements that Italy made in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, however, did illustrate graphically the dissimilarities in the situations of the two provinces as they were perceived by Italian authorities. In 1920 an accord was reached between Italy and the Sanusi leaders that confirmed Idris as amir of Cyrenaica and recognized his virtual independence in an immense area in the interior that encompassed all the principal oases. Italy provided a subsidy to the amir's government, and Sanusi shaykhs, holding seats in the Cyrenaican parliament, participated in the government of the entire province. Idris was also allowed to retain the Sanusi army, although its units were to be stationed in "mixed camps" with Italian forces. By this arrangement, the Italian government officially accepted Idris as both secular and religious leader of the Cyrenaican tribes, but in effect it did not extend his political power beyond what he already exercised as head of the Sanusi order.

Clearly, the Rome government had not formulated a coherent policy toward a country that had not been conquered and whose people were dubious about the benefits of Italian rule. But because the Italians never faced a credible, united opposition in Tripolitania, they were not under comparable pressure there to yield the concessions they had made in Cyrenaica. Tripolitania lacked the leadership and organizational structure that Idris and the Sanusi order gave to Cyrenaica. The most prominent Tripolitanian nationalist was Ramadan as Suwaythi, who had by turns cooperated with the Italians, supported the Sanusis, and eventually fought against them both. His rival, Baruni, who had acted during the war as Ottoman "governor" in Tripolitania with German backing, was mistrusted by the Arab nationalists. Tribal rivalries were intense, and the aims of the beduin shaykhs and the nationalists were fundamentally different, the latter being concerned with forming a centralized republic while the former were interested primarily in creating tribal states.

A prominent pan-Arab nationalist, the Egyptian Abdar Rahman Azzam, persuaded Suwaythi and Baruni to cooperate in demanding Italian recognition of an independent republic that was called into being at Misratah in 1919. Talks with the Italians broke down when the Misratah republic's governing body, the so-called Reform Committee, claimed jurisdiction over Libya rather than over Tripolitania only. In 1920 delegates from both occupied and unoccupied zones convened the National Congress at Aziza. Claiming to represent the "Tripolitanian Nation," they called for the withdrawal of the Italian forces. No nationalist movement, however, was able to rally the country behind it.

Even delegates to the National Congress had been sharply divided on the degree of cooperation with Italy they would allow. Rival delegations beat a path to Rome with their petitions for recognition. Meanwhile, Count Giuseppe Volpi, a vigorous and determined governor, gave decisive direction to Italian policy in Tripolitania with his advocacy of military pacification rather than negotiation. The nationalists lost their most effective leaders when Baruni defected to the Italians as a result of hostility between Arabs and Berbers, which Volpi successfully exploited, and Suwaythi was killed by his political rivals.

In this situation, the Tripolitanian nationalists met with the Sanusis at Surt early in 1922 and offered to accept Idris as amir of Tripolitania. Idris had never sought any title other than the one he held in Cyrenaica, and he was not anxious to extend either his political influence or his religious leadership to northern Tripolitania, where neither he nor the Sanusi order was widely popular. He had always refused aid to Tripolitanian nationalists and under the circumstances considered their offer to have been made for reasons of expediency, that is, because there was no alternative candidate for leadership apparent at the time. Idris' acceptance, as the nationalists understood, would draw sharp Italian disapproval and be the signal for the resumption of open warfare. War with Italy, in any event, appeared likely sooner or later. For several months, Idris pondered the nationalist appeal. For whatever reason--perhaps to further the cause of total independence or perhaps out of a sense of religious obligation to resist the infidel--Idris accepted the amirate of all Libya in November and then, to avoid capture by the Italians, fled to Egypt, where he continued to guide the Sanusi order.

Data as of 1987

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