The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

In LRB: Is there a Libya?


I have a new review of the two books above, on Libya's 20th-century history, out in the London Review of Books (subscription). I really recommend both of the books above if you want some background to the ongoing civil war, they're both excellent. Vandewalle focuses on the creation of Libya, in terms of its establishment as a state but also the experimentation Qadhafi conducted. Martinez focuses on the Qadhafi era and provides a condensed overview of the transformation of Libya from a revolutionary state to a mafia state.

Here's an excerpt from the end of the (long) review:

The uprising that began in February was unexpected, but so were the other Arab rebellions, even though there had been indications that a rough patch lay ahead as the question of who would succeed the elderly rulers loomed. These succession crises were only part of the picture, however. Mubarak and Ben-Ali were plainly corrupt; in Libya, Gaddafi’s sons controlled vast chunks of the economy. All three countries were mafia states. Over the last decade, the Libyan regime had held the country together through a combination of sticks and carrots: on the one hand, repression; on the other, the promise of rising oil and gas income as international oil companies returned after the lifting of sanctions and invested in new fields Libya did not possess the technology to tap, as well as the façade of a reform process whereby Saif Gaddafi, the Guide’s second son, promised partial liberalisation in return for an acceptance that he would inherit power. What was in effect being promised was a Libyan adaptation of the market-friendly, pro-Western dynastic authoritarianism evident until now in Egypt and Tunisia. In the end, what undid Gaddafi’s revolution was a wider pan-Arab revolution with which young Arabs across the region instantly identified. This is why diplomatic attempts to guarantee the succession for Saif, as advocated by the African Union and Curt Weldon, a former Republican congressman from Pennsylvania who conducted ‘private diplomacy’ financed by oil lobbyists, have been rejected out of hand by the rebels.

Throughout his 42-year reign, Gaddafi used Libya as a test-case for his ideal of statelessness, based on a mishmash of Marxist ideology, his own peculiar distillation of Islamic history and idealised bedouin values (egalitarianism, self-reliance). Despite his tribal background, there is now, thanks to him, a greater sense of a united Libya than ever existed before. What brought this about was the redistribution of oil income, which in the 1970s and 1980s dramatically increased the living standards of Libyans and made them more dependent on the state, particularly after Gaddafi banned private businesses for more than a decade, a measure that led to the exile of the country’s entrepreneurs and created a deep well of resentment, notably in Benghazi’s merchant class, now strong supporters of the uprising. The growing urbanisation of the country has resulted in the slow decline of tribal and regional identity, while standardised education and globalisation have made the old debate about whether Libya should exist at all obsolete. And yet, as Vandewalle’s history shows, Gaddafi’s fixation on statelessness and the haphazard administration of the country means that state-building has been ‘lopsided and incomplete’.

The question that must now be asked is whether there will be enough centripetal force to keep Libya together. Today, the rebels protest that they have no intention of dividing the country and insist that tribal and provincial considerations are largely irrelevant. But the reality is that their movement is mostly a Cyrenaican one, and that recruitment has taken place largely through tribal affiliation. Beyond a rejection of the Gaddafi regime, the Transitional National Council has given little indication of what its version of a post-Gaddafi Libya might look like. For his part, Gaddafi has rallied loyal tribes around him, and now relies on them for support more publicly than ever. With time, the historical Tripolitanian-Cyrenaican divide could gain new permanence.