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A History of Modern Libya


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A History of Modern Libya
Cambridge University Press
9781107019393 - A History of Modern Libya - By Dirk Vandewalle

A History of Modern Libya

Second Edition

Dirk Vandewalle is one of only a handful of scholars who have made frequent visits to Libya over the last four decades. His formidable knowledge of the region is encapsulated in his history of Libya, which was first published in 2006. The book – based on original research and interviews with Libya’s political elite – traces Libya’s history back to the 1900s with a portrait of Libya’s desert terrain, its peoples, and the personalities that shaped its development. It then examines the harrowing years of the Italian occupation in the early twentieth century, through the Sanusi monarchy and, thereafter, to the revolution of 1969 and the accession of Qadhafi. The chapters that follow analyze the economics and politics of Qadhafi’s revolution, offering insights into the man and his ideology as reflected in his Green Book. In the wake of the civil war and Qadhafi’s demise, the time is ripe for an updated edition of the history, which covers the years from 2005 to the present. These were the years when Libya finally came in from the cold after years of political and economic isolation. The agreement to give up the weapons of mass destruction program paved the way for improved relations with the West. By this time, however, Qadhafi had lost the support of his people and, despite attempts to liberalize the economy, real structural reform proved impossible. This, as Vandewalle contends in the preface to this new edition, coupled with tribal rivalries, regional divisions, and a general lack of unity, paved the way for revolution and civil war. In an epilogue, the author reflects on Qadhafi’s premiership, The Green Book’s stateless society, and the legacy that Qadhafi leaves behind.

Dirk Vandewalle is Associate Professor of Government at Dartmouth College. He is the author of Libya Since Independence: Oil and State-Building (1998) and editor of North Africa: Development and Reform in a Changing Global Economy (1996) and Qadhafi’s Libya: 1969–1994 (1995).

A History of Modern Libya

Second Edition

Dirk Vandewalle

Dartmouth College

Cambridge, New York, Melbourne, Madrid, Cape Town, Singapore, São Paulo, Delhi, Mexico City

Cambridge University Press
32 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10013-2473, USA
Information on this title:

© Cambridge University Press 2006, 2012

This publication is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Press.

First published 2006
Second edition 2012
Printed in the United States of America

A catalog record for this publication is available from the British Library.

Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication data

Vandewalle, Dirk J.
A history of modern Libya / Dirk Vandewalle. – 2nd ed.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-1-107-01939-3 (hardback) – ISBN 978-1-107-61574-8 (paperback)
1. Libya – History – 1969– 2. Libya – Foreign relations – 1969–
3. Libya – Politics and government – 1969– I. Title.
DT236.V35 2012
961.204–dc23 2011040931

ISBN 978-1-107-01939-3 Hardback
ISBN 978-1-107-61574-8 Paperback

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for the persistence or accuracy of URLs for external or third-party Internet Web sites referred to in this publication and does not guarantee that any content on such Web sites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.


List of Illustrations
List of Maps
Preface to the Second Edition
Preface to the First Edition
Chronology, 1900–2011
List of Acronyms
Introduction: Libya, the enigmatic oil state
1       “A tract which is wholly sand…” Herodotus
Libya’s geography
The Ottoman period and the Sanusiyya
European intrusions and the Young Turk revolt
The Ottoman legacy
2       Italy’s Fourth Shore and decolonization, 1911–1950
The Italian occupation, 1911–1923
Fascism and the Italian settler colony
World War II, Italy’s defeat, and the Great Power deliberations
Legacies at the eve of independence
3       The Sanusi monarchy as accidental state, 1951–1969
Politics of avoidance: the reluctant monarchy
The development challenges of the first decade
The Libyan oil industry
The unification of the kingdom
The social impact of oil and the early seeds of revolution
The monarchy in perspective
4       A Libyan sandstorm: from monarchy to republic, 1969–1973
Libya’s young revolutionaries
Popular revolution, participation, and legitimacy
Charisma and rhetoric as mobilizational tools
Oil and economic management
The revolution on the eve of the 1973 oil crisis
5       The Green Book’s stateless society, 1973–1986
Revolutionaries, technocrats, and The Green Book as political primer
The Green Book’s economic and social directives
Oil and development
The revolutionary society
Symbols, myths, Islam, and opposition
Terrorism, adventurism, and confrontation with the West
The revolutionary decade revisited
6       The limits of the revolution, 1986–2000
Curtailing revolutionary energy
The Great Green Charter of Human Rights
Protecting the regime: formal and informal means of power and control
The economic sanctions and their impact
Economic sanctions and oil policies
Attempts at economic reform
The lessons of failed reform
Confrontation, terrorism, and sanctions
The revolution curtailed
7       Reconciliation, civil war, and fin de régime, 2002–2011
The road to disarmament
Pragmatism, economic reform, and political reality
From Arab socialism to pan-African unity
The delusions of Qadhafi and of the West
The uprising in Cyrenaica and the civil war
Epilogue:Whither Libya?


1       Omar al-Mukhtar. © Centre for Libyan Studies, Oxford
2       Benito Mussolini in Libya in 1937. © Bettmann / CORBIS
3       Proclamation of the creation of the United Kingdom of Libya at al-Manar Palace in Benghazi. © Centre for Libyan Studies, Oxford
4       Richard Nixon in Libya. © Centre for Libyan Studies, Oxford
5       Qadhafi, Arafat, Nasser, and Hussein Nasser, 1970. © Bettmann / CORBIS
6       Lockerbie bombing. © Bryn Colton / Assignments Photographers / CORBIS
7       Tripoli, Libyan Arab Jamahiriyya. © AFP / Getty Images
8       Female soldier during the 34th anniversary of the revolution in September 2003. © AFP / Getty Images


1       General map of Libya
2       Ethnic and tribal map of Libya
3       Economic activity

Preface to the Second Edition

The uprising against the government of Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi that started in eastern Libya in February 2011 questioned many of the assumptions even seasoned observers of the country had made about the regime and about its durability. To many, the carapace of security organizations and other measures to protect the regime had long seemed unassailable. Yet, slightly over six months later, on the 1 September 2011 anniversary of Qadhafi’s revolution, the Libyan leader was in hiding, and an international conference in Paris announced measures to provide international support to the Libyan opposition to help rebuild Libya. Seven weeks later, on 20 October, Qadhafi was dead. The willingness, by a population that had for more than four decades been cowered by the diktats of Qadhafi’s revolution, to stand up for its rights seemed almost beyond belief. The surprise was even greater in light of internal developments in Libya since December 2003 when the government had agreed to hand over its weapons of mass destruction to the West and had embarked on a period of economic liberalization and reintegration into the international community that had seemingly provided a safety valve for the regime.

In the first edition of this book I covered developments in Libya roughly through 2005. In the conclusion to the final chapter I wrote about the challenges Libya would face as it moved toward becoming part of the international community once more. The assumption that underpinned much of the chapter’s analysis was that Libya would somehow muddle through under Qadhafi, sustained by its oil revenues – but that serious economic reform would also entail political reform, something the regime was unlikely to allow (despite the entreaties of Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi, the Libyan leader’s son).

In retrospect, it is clear that none of Libya’s essential political problems were seriously addressed between 2003 and the eruption of popular anger in 2011. This at least had come as no surprise. As I argued in the first edition, Qadhafi’s self-styled revolution had become a self-reverential and self-centered political experiment that would only change upon the death or the replacement of its creator. Most observers and most Libyans therefore had resigned themselves to a prolonged period of muddling through, aided by oil revenues that had once more dramatically increased by 2011. The uprising, therefore, marked a clear, surprising break with politics – or lack thereof – as usual in Libya.

When my editor, Marigold Acland, approached me to consider a second edition of A Modern History of Libya, her request afforded me the chance to not only bring the earlier volume up to date, but also to reflect in the Epilogue on what I see as the larger theme of political and economic development in an exceptionally rich oil exporter whose ruler has squandered much of that wealth in pursuit of a number of visions that to most Western observers looked quixotic, if not incomprehensible. The major question, as this book goes to press, is whether Libya’s current and future rulers, now facing the enormous tasks of state and nation building, will do better.

The Libya that I visited prior to 2003 and the Libya that had emerged by the spring of 2011 – the period covered in the final chapter of this edition – was, at least at the surface, very different. The agreement on WMDs, the settlement of the Lockerbie claims, the reestablishment of more open trade relations with the rest of the world, and the renewal of diplomatic relations with the United States all contributed in various ways to help change the physical appearance of the country. Long an economic backwater as a result of the economic and diplomatic sanctions by the international community, the return of international oil companies and the renewed influx of oil money created virtually overnight a building boom the like of which Libya had never experienced in its history. For a short while, aided by the assurances by Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi that Libya had turned a corner, it seemed as if the country would finally embark on a path of development relatively untainted by Qadhafi’s earlier ideological preoccupations. When Libya reestablished diplomatic relations with the United States and then became its favored partner in the fight against Islamic radicalism in the region, the country’s newfound direction seemed confirmed.

In the concluding chapter of the first edition I had remarked that “inexorably, the combination of economic necessity, generational turnover, and reintegration into the global economy will continue to change Libya’s political and economic life.” When I wrote those words in 2006, many close observers were cautiously optimistic about the country’s future. There were, however, some warning signs that little had structurally changed in how the country was being governed. The events I describe in the final chapter of this second edition, particularly the cult of personality and the propaganda campaign to burnish Qadhafi’s international image after 2005 – eagerly underwritten by a bevy of Western intellectuals and public figures – should have made us more aware of some of the immutable aspects of Libyan politics.

© Cambridge University Press
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