Jun. 19th, 2006

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Dirk Vandewalle's A History of Modern Libya (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006) is billed by the publisher on the back cover as "a lucid and comprehensive account of Libya's past [that] corrects some of the misunderstandings about its present," written by "one of only a handful of western scholars to visit the country" during the recent sanctions. So far as I can tell, being a non-expert in this area, the publisher is telling the truth. Vandewalle manages to make a convincing argument that the modern history of Libya has been dominated by different regimes--the lax Ottoman rule, the genocidal Italian colonization, the weak Kingdom of Libya, and Qadhafi's Jamahiriya--which share a common disconnectedness with the lived experiences of Libyans on the ground. Until independence as a unified state, the three regions which make up modern Libya--historically dominant Tripolitania in the west around the future capital of Tripoli, Cyrenaica in the east around the city of Benghazi, and the Fezzan in the Saharan interior--were administered by foreigners with technical and financial resources far superior to those provided for by Libya's subsistence level economy. Libya's oil did give the state vast new wealth, but Vandewalle argues that it also allowed the Libyan state to disconnect itself completely from traditional sources of legitimacy, using money to buy support while lacking any real purchase in Libyan society. Even the Jamahiriya, a regime supposedly characterized by the total mobilization of the Libyan population, was in the end dependent on the ability of Qadhafi's ability to coerce the Libyan population. According to the author, Libya's existence as a tabula rasa as a proper state society has turned out to be the very thing that kept Libya from becoming a proper state.

Vandewalle ends his survey by examining Libya today. The situation, he judges, is mixed: Yes, the sanctions imposed by the United Nations in response to Libyan-sponsored terrorism has been lifted and Libya is enjoying an economic boom driven by foreign investment in Libyan hydrocarbon exports, but inequalities in Libyan society have grown (not least between Libyan citizens and the millions of African immigrants who've recently entered the country) and the Libyan state still has to develop into a much stabler entity. Even so, he still seems to think that Libya's future is going to be more stable than its past, thanks to the past century of shared history and the certainty of high prices for Libyan oil. At least now, Libya has a stable niche for itself in the world of the 21st century.
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