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
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
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
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