Collaboration & Resistance in Libya

Ahmida’s essay illustrates the various reasons for which different groups either collaborated or resisted Italian colonialism in Libia.  It’s interesting to see how reactions to colonialism differed from  region to region.  Reactions depended mainly upon the distinct makeup of social classes within the regions.  The  urban notable class in Tripolitania and Fezzan  both had tribal confederations with distinct social classes (notable or landowning clans and peasantry or landowning and share cropping peasants). Cyrenaica differed in that it had no peasantry and had one cohesive social force.  In Tripolitania and Fezzan economic and social interests (read POWER here and also revenge) were the main factors for collaboration with Italian colonialists. These two groups were “waiverers” and sought advantage either by collaborating or resisting as the situation required. As Ahmida’s article stresses, collaboration is a complex issue and hard to define. Some chiefs sought to protect their authority and interests and saw collaboration as a means to achieve this. The Italians were not the main enemy – rival chiefs were more of a threat, and many saw collaboration as a way to preserve their interests.

More interesting to me, was the situation in Cyrenaica. The region was divided between the coastal, urban population and the hinterland.  The two areas had weak ties and reacted differently to Italian colonialization. The town notables in the north in the end decided to make peace with the Italians because they became isolated under Italian occupation.  Anti-colonial resistance in the hinterland was another story. The tribes in Cyrenaica refused to collaborate and caused a protracted guerrilla war against Italian fascist armies between 1922 and 1932.  The Sanusi tribes had no elite class and their leaders came from lower-status tribal backgrounds. Typical in chieftainships is that power emanates from the chief rather than being invested in him by those he leads.  A chief is expected to conduct himself in a way befitting his power. Italian armies with all their military might were ill equipped to combat these tribes who knew the land and who above all were willing to die rather than submit to oppression by foreigners.  A tribal system is best expressed by F, Barth: “me against my brother, me and my brothers against my cousins, me and my cousins against the world” (Nomads of South Persia. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1964, p.3).  Colonialism transforms self-sufficient economies or dominates them according to Ahmida.  Italians were looking for a way to solve the “southern problem” (among other things) by colonizing Libia. I find it paradoxical that they were using force in Libia to avoid using force in their own country against possible rebellions by nationalists.