On Libya in the NYRB

From Vengeance in Libya by Joshua Hammer | The New York Review of Books

Libyans I talked to feared that their country is destined to fragment into individual fiefdoms ruled by feuding armed factions, with a weak national government. Forty years of erratic dictatorship have left the country without working civil institutions, and nine months of war severely damaged its roads and water supplies and other infrastructure. “We don’t have a police station, we don’t have a judicial system. We inherited nothing,” Shammam said. Still, he believes that Libya has the greatest potential of all the recently liberated Arab countries for post-dictatorship prosperity and democracy. It has a small and relatively well-educated population, hundreds of miles of coastline, and vast reserves of oil. But the potential for violence, he said, was as great as that for democratic transition. “We are [going through] the French Revolution,” Shammam told me. “But we aren’t chopping off people’s heads—at least for now.”

That was always going to be the problem in overthrowing an entire state after a prolonged period of civil war. And it is why the maximalist solution – complete overthrow of a regime – is not always the best solution. In Libya, considering that the rebels very quickly took control of a good part of the country (although they probably could not keep it for very long) perhaps such an outcome was unavoidable. In Syria, though, it still is.

I wrote about Libya's fragmented history a few months ago, here. Its history of a centralized state really only dates from the late 1970s, with Qadhafi's more Maoist policies.

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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.