Learning from Past Mistakes

[inset_left]The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future

Edited by Jason Pack

Palgrave Macmillan, 2013[/inset_left]Jason Pack has assembled articles by both new and well-known experts on Libya to produce a book of consistently high quality, which is not all that common in edited works. Both timely and excellent, The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future examines the causes and evolution of the Libyan revolution and will help those struggling to understand Libya’s difficulties in building stable political structures that might finally allow its people to benefit from its oil and gas resources.

Pack’s introduction to the book puts the Libyan uprising in the context of previous revolutions and the circumstances of Libya’s history since 1900. Though it sits uneasily in a book that focuses on internal developments, a chapter by Richard Northern and Jason Pack on the role of outside actors is interesting in its own right, as an example of international intervention so different from that in Iraq in 2003.

What strikes me—I did a PhD on the tribes in Tarhuna and taught at the university in Tripoli in the 1960s—is how Gaddafi, for all of his bombastic nationalism and eccentric ideology, failed to build a state with solid institutions and a balanced economy. Even in the early 1960s, some ten years after independence, Libya felt more like a collection of regions and tribes than a state. A brutal Italian colonization had given it a geographical shape in the early twentieth century, but Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan seemed quite different from each other.

Gaddafi destroyed the embryonic institutions created under King Idris, who ruled from independence in 1952 until 1969. The Great Jamahiriya (state of the masses) barely camouflaged a dictatorship based on rule through the Gaddafa tribes and its traditional allies, as well as the co-option and discarding of other major tribes. Though he espoused Arab and then Libyan nationalism, the effect of his policies was to increase tribal and local identities, which now inhibit institutional development. Areas that suffered under his rule—Benghazi, Misrata and the Jebel Nafusa—became the main focuses of the revolution, and they now feel entitled to shape the new Libya.


George Joffe, who has known Libya for as long as I have, sets the scene, describing the evolution of the Jamahiriya that stifled political life and failed to create viable institutions despite a late attempt by Saif Al-Islam to introduce some reform. Joffe discusses the great changes since 1979, and not least the massive transfer through migration of people from rural to urban areas. Libyans were not free to express their opinions, but could get free education and welfare. Libya has a meritocratic professional class within the country, and Libyan communities abroad are today helping to build a better future. Resistance to Gaddafi’s rule took on an Islamic character with the formation of Libyan Islamic Fighting Forces (LIFG) in 1995, which in turn brought down greater repression. Gaddafi changed his tactics in the late 2000s to reach out to former members of the group. Political Islamic groups joined other forces in slowly building the resistance that grew in Gaddafi’s last years in power and eventually helped to overthrow him.

Youssef Mohammed Sawani traces the origin of Libyan identities before he looks at how Libya has evolved since the initial uprising in Benghazi in February 2011. He brings out the enduring influence of localism and examines the relationships between the center and periphery, the emerging national intuitions and the how the new political groups—Islamic, liberal and local—interact with other groups and the central institutions. Looking ahead, he points out that the elections and politics in general are likely to remain dominated by tribal and local concerns, in what he calls “the inherent indecisiveness of the perpetual dynamics of Libyan life.” In the few months since the book was published, his forecast has proved correct.

Ronald Brue St John examines the poor economic inheritance of what should be a wealthy country by most measures. Gaddafi marginalized Cyrenaica, which had been the main support base for the monarchy, and paid the price when the uprising first started in Benghazi. The new regime has inherited a dilapidated infrastructure and an inadequate legal system. It has to wrestle with a population that acquired a culture of entitlement under Gaddafi, sharpened by widespread expectations of rapid change following his downfall. As elsewhere since 2011, people now expect to be heard, or they will take to the streets or reach for their guns. Libya was able to quickly restore its oil output, although that has since been crippled by strikes deriving from that culture of entitlement and localism. Hydrocarbons will remain the centerpiece of the economy for years ahead. He concludes that Libya will need a “well defined, coherent and effective nationwide plan for economic development.” There seems little immediate prospect of that.

Later chapters drill down into the key issues. Wolfram Lacher provides an essential survey of tribes and tribal politics. He draws particular attention to the tensions between those tribes that provided the main support for Gaddafi and those that led the rebellion against him. In the Libya of the 1960s, Tripoli-based politicians could not exert much influence outside the city limits. Today, there is a gulf between the same tribes and the revolutionary forces in the cities. Henry Smith takes this further in his study of the often-ignored but strategically important and restive south, which is heavily influenced by—and can influence—Saharan politics. There is a fascinating analysis of the relationship of the main tribal groups with the center over time, and with each other and with the Tuareg and Tubu minorities. The challenge now is to persuade local groups to commit themselves to national goals. I would have liked to see an additional chapter looking in more detail at the Jebel Nafusa and Misrata.

The chapter that breaks new ground is one on Islamists by Pack, Norman Benotman and James Brandon. In the early post-Gaddafi period, liberals, technocrats and tribal figures absorbed aspects of moderate Islamic rhetoric while Islamists accepted the compromises needed to achieve political consensus. This has since begun to break down. The authors look at the roles of the Islamic actors—the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb Al-Tahrir, Salafists and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group—in the last years of the Gaddafi period, during the revolution, and currently. The Brotherhood, with its “focus on social networks” and its grassroots organization, was well positioned in 2011, while the LIFG played an important role in the fighting but lacked the capacity to sustain itself afterwards. A number of “freelance” Islamic actors rose to prominence immediately after the moves by the center to incorporate them or isolate them failed. There is now a need for greater unity between the Brotherhood and other moderate groups to halt the destabilizing influence of freelance jihadists, who are causing so much trouble.

This book has appeared too soon to provide answers to many of the questions that it poses, but it is a considerable achievement to produce such a volume so quickly. It will help policymakers, businessmen and analysts struggling to understand the new Libya as its leaders learn from the mistakes of the past and persuade local forces who feel they made the revolution to put national interests above their own.

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