The present Libyan turmoil reminds me of the visit I made to the country 32 years ago. I was then the chief correspondent of the Xinhua News Agency and the Guangming Daily based in Beirut. In 1979, Xinhua send me there to cover the 10th anniversary of the “revolution” staged by Colonel mu’ Ammar el Qathafi . I stayed there for a week and had the opportunity of having a group interview with the colonel in a desert tent. After more than 3 decades, my memory of that visit, instead of being blurred, remains vivid because Libya and its people including the colonel are so different from the other Arab countries I have visited.
The social structure of Libya, like Yemen and the Gulf emirates, is based on tribes, mainly the Berbers. Hence the politics are highly tribal. But Libya has a distinct historical heritage as compared with the others: stubborn resistance to conquerors. Situated in the middle of the southern Mediterranean shoreline of Africa, its geo-strategic value destines this stretch of land to be the contending ground of big powers. In history, it has been conquered and occupied by the Arabs, the Turks and in modern era, the Italians. But all the conquerors without exception had been met with stubborn resistance by the desert tribes. The most famous uprising against the Arab conquest was led by a Berber princess Cahina Dahia. The revolt spread all over the western half of North Africa including Algeria, Tunisia and Tripoli and lasted for five years. During the rule of the Ottoman Empire, revolts and rebellions broke out intermittently and lasted a total of 26 years, not only in Tripoli but also in Fezzan deep in the desert and Cyrenaica in the east. The most well-known resistance movement in Libya’s modern history was that led by the legendary hero Omar el Mukhtar against the Italian occupation.
The armed resistance last for 9 years and Mukhtar became the symbol of a freedom fighter among the Libyans up till now. During my visit to Libya, an epic film based on Mukhtar’s life was shown with the title “Lion of the Desert”. The late film star Anthony Quinn played the hero. The film won millions of hearts not only in Arab countries but also in the world.
That I recall these historic episodes is not because I am obsessed with history. It because I believed in dealing with the present Libyan crisis, one is better to take into account of the social and history backgrounds of Libya. Colonel Qathafi’s rights and wrongs notwithstanding, a forced military solution of the Libyan conflict will definitely not work. The colonel could be forced to step down or even eliminated physically, but can anyone get rid of his tribal support and support given to him by those who have vested interests owing to the colonel’s over 40 years of rule? A case in point is Afghanistan. 10 years of war has not solve the problem of Taliban though its regime was overthrown. Now people who believe in force have to turn by and seek a political solution through dialogue with the Taliban. So give some leeway to the tribes and people represented by the colonel. By adopting extremist measure, one is to sow seeds of hatred and the harvest is bound to be revenge. Political solution is the best policy choice. Let the Libyan conflict land softly.
Xu Shiquan is Chinese mainland expert on Taiwan issues.From 1967 to 1996, he worked as Xinhua correspondent in Tanzania, Guangming Daily correspondent and bureau chief in Lebanon and UK, People's Daily bureau chief in the United Nations.