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History of an ‘Accidental State’

In the wake of civil war and Qadhafi's demise, Dirk Vandewalle updates his classic study of Libya to trace events since 2005

Last update: 2019-05-14 10:04:49

Review of Dirk Vandewalle, "A History of Modern Libya", Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2012.



‘We don’t produce anything. We sell only oil and consume everything. The kind of trade in which you produce nothing and import goods in exchange for oil – it’s a catastrophe’ (p. 191). It will be perhaps surprising to learn that this lucid analysis of the eternal problem of an oil State was made by the former Libyan leader, Mu’ammar Gaddafi. From this point of view, the Libyan case is not especially exceptional. A territory that is almost completely desert, Libya experienced a sudden advance in wealth in the year 1959. Until then the country, historically divided between the two rival regions of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, had been a remote Ottoman province before being colonised by Italy, in particular during the epoch of fascism. After the Second World War, it was specifically the inability of the victorious powers to reach an agreement that led in 1951 to the birth of the Kingdom of Libya: an ‘accidental State’, according to the caustic definition of a diplomat of the time, that was entrusted to the Senussi dynasty.



However side by side with the problems common to all rentier States, Vandewalle illustrates in an extremely lucid way the particular feature of Libya: the decision of a part of its governing class to obstruct as much as possible the birth of a modern State. This was a choice that was more the outcome of inertia than of a precise wish during the period of the monarchy, but which was actively pursued by Gaddafi after the revolution of 1969. Whereas the declared political goal was the establishment of a ‘government of the masses’, economic policy went in the other direction. Indeed, the whole of private enterprise was taken over by the State. If to this one adds the gap between formal and informal structures of power and the complex system of patronage implemented by Gaddafi to conserve his power, one can well understand the paradoxical situation of a country that had at one and the same time ‘too much state, too less state’. The three waves of economic reforms that were attempted starting in 1986 did not manage to solve this contradiction, which led in 2011 to the collapse of the regime.



Specifically thanks to this broad-ranging analysis, which is not invalidated by some occasional inaccuracies (the failure to update some parts of chapter V for the second edition, for example, or quotations from the Italian), this book does not fall into the easy short cut of following the histrionic Colonel in all his moves. Not least because the list of the bizarre actions (and crimes) of Gaddafi would be almost infinite, from the first – all things taken into consideration of a modest character – attempts to accredit himself as Nasser’s heir; to the Green Book, a pamphlet not even of hundred pages but of such a depth as to deserve study centres throughout the country and in recent years abroad as well; to the seven attempts, all of which failed, to unify with other Arab countries; to the military adventures in Chad; and on to international terrorism, at first supported on a large scale and then countered in an unprecedented alliance with the former arch-enemy, the United States of America. And after so much pan-Arab inebriation, a sudden deviation allowed the Libyan dictator to present himself to the United Nations in 2009 as the ‘King of African Kings’, with a large number of Amazonian bodyguards in his entourage.



The advantage of not allowing oneself to be captured by the personage of Gaddafi also emerges in the epilogue. After the elimination of the Colonel, the problems of Libya have remained the same: total dependence on oil, the absence of a strong national identity, and a State on the one hand weak and on the other omnipresent. Even though the first free elections gave some grounds for hope, ‘the dual challenges of State and nation building will undoubtedly prove arduous in light of the tortuous political path the country has stumbled along since its independence’ (Preface, p. xi). 



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