Our Book on State Building in Libya
Arturo Varvelli 5 October 2017

Below the introduction of our monography State Building in Libya. Integrating Diversities, Traditions and Citizenship edited by Arturo Varvelli with an afterword of Roberto Toscano and the contributions of Massimo Campanini, Irene Costantini, Federico Cresti, Moncef Djaziri, Courtney Erwin, Thomas Hüsken, Georg Klute and Wolfgang Kraus. 

Since the revolution in 2011, the Libyan crisis has increasingly imposed itself as a global issue. Particularly over the past few years, Libya has indeed moved from being a merely domestic dispute to gathering the interests of different foreign players, thus coming to represent a matter of international security. In light of the recent developments in the local as much as the international arena, the international Association Reset-Dialogues on Civilizations has turned the spotlight on Libya with a meeting that was held in Tunis on September 30, 2016. The purpose of the meeting was to analyse Libya’s scenario of persistent crisis, characterized by a lack of state authority that controls the territory and assures the security of its citizens and the formation of an interim government at the beginning of 2016, the so-called Government of National Accord (GNA).

Despite the establishment of a Government of National Accord, the country appears not only still far from being stabilized, but the Libyan chaos has protracted all over the last year and a half, dragging various consequences for the whole North African and Mediterranean region. A series of causes lay at the basis of such a deep and prolonged crisis.

The first amongst these concerns might be defined as a “multiple identity”. The Libyan nation state is indeed a modern construction, the result of the shift from Ottoman rule to the Italian colonial period. Both King Idris al-Senussi and Colonel Muammar Gaddafi have been much aware of such a weakness. The same King Idris, when offered the Crown in the 40s, was concerned about the acceptance by the population of his leadership, fearing that his provenience from Senussia would have been disregarded by other local communities. Gaddafi, on his side, sometimes artificially, tried to build a new narrative of the Libyan identity by leveraging anti-colonial and anti-imperialistic feelings, desperately looking for an external enemy to fight. Alongside national identities, at least two other kind of identities are to be highlighted; one is related to regionalisms, and another is related to localisms and tribal society. For instance, regionalism has emerged during the civil war that erupted in 2011. This can be described, at least partially, as a revolt of Cyrenaica against Tripolitania. It exists indeed an historical rivalry among the three Libyan regions (Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan), which once represented autonomous administrations under the Ottoman Empire. On the other hand, tribalism has undergone a new revival. Tribes and localisms have indeed filled the vacuum of power, which was left by the collapse of the state, thus going back to assuming their historical role of social mediation, while sometimes contributing to lightening up rivalries also by a military point of view.

The second cause for the endless Libyan crisis may be identified in the political attitude itself of Gaddafi’s regime and its deep rentier nature. It is indeed rentierism that has allowed Gaddafi to stay in rule for over 40 years, surrounded by a weak institutional apparatus. The role Gaddafi assumed of supplier of income within the country allowed him to adopt a “personalistic” management of the country. For instance, he consciously avoided to build institutions that would have represented an alternative pole of attraction to his personal holding of power. Later on, and differently from the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, the outburst of Gaddafi has engendered not only a change in leadership, but also the flanking of the weak Libyan state.

Finally, it must be added that, in the post-Gaddafi period, a growing competition between regional and international actors arose. Foreign players, indeed, have repeatedly supported one Libyan contender or another according to their own interests. Accordingly, the conditions on the ground in Libya came to mirror the divisions at the international and regional level. The rivalry between domestic factions and their international supporters reached its climax in the summer of 2014 when the country was de facto split into two parts, one in Tobruk in the east under the control of General Khalifa Haftar and the newly elected House of Representatives (HoR), and one in the west led by Islamist leaning militia leaders and those in the city of Misrata.

All these elements contribute to compose the puzzle of the current Libyan chaos, shedding light on the deep reasons why the country is undergoing such a crisis. However, it is not possible to understand contemporary and current dynamics on-going in Libya without investigating its history and many socio-ethnic dynamics. To this purpose, in the first part of the present volume the authors investigate the birth of Libya as a political identity, moving from the establishment and consolidation of the Ottoman Empire at the middle of the sixteenth century to the colonial legacy of Libya, with the problematic developments in the period following independence. The second part analyses those cultural and socio-political forms of organization, cooperation and collective action that are referred to as “localisms” or “tribes”. In particular, the contributions of the authors focus on the historical tendency of tribal communities to perceive themselves as distinct from the broader societies they live in and their strive for political autonomy, and the consequences of this attitude in contemporary Libya. Finally, the third part of the present volume tackles more current and urgent dynamics by addressing a number of events – from the increasing intervention of foreign players to the territorial losses of the Islamic State – that seem today to be driving Libya to a new evolution of the crisis.

Credit: Abdullah Doma / AFP