Understanding Libya Since Gaddafi (book review)
I actually read Ulf Laessing’s Understanding Libya Since Gaddafi during my summer break and finally finished turning my initial notes into a longer review.
Ulf Laessing’s book is not a happy read, but he finds an excellent tone to move beyond headlines and stereotypes, the ‘failed state’ narrative that all too often dominates mainstream discussions. In his book Libya comes to life between historical observations, journalistic insights and a detailed academic engagement with the country.
Libya’ modern, 20th century history starts with another aspect of Northern power plays and extended colonialism:
In Libya, independence was a result of neither ancient heritage nor armed struggle-it was a country created by world powers (p.21)A clueless international community
Fast forward to the end of the Gaddafi regime and what strikes me more than once is how clueless the ‘international community’ seems after 25 years of dealing with post-war peacebuilding: ‘It was a time when Western governments still hoped the militias would work together for the sake of a stable notion’ (p.45), Laessing observes in 2013.
The absence of functioning state structures led to a security vacuum and all the experience gathered in working in ‘fragile environments’ let to situations where ‘for legal reasons, the US and its counterparts were often unable to approve (military) training requests using unofficial email addresses’ (p.49) and many institutions could not provide official ones.
It is exactly that kind of lacking imagination that I noticed throughout the book-‘we’ actually cannot (or perhaps do not want to) offer a lot to countries like Libya and the noticeable absence of an aid industry is equally striking in Laessing’s narrative.
Perhaps my review cannot do fully justice to his detailed, nuanced and fact-based presentation of the multitude of challenges that Libya has been facing, but one issue that shows up time and again is the overburdening public sector that lies at the heart of many issues.
In the case of Libya, the consequences of spending almost all available resources on a unproductive public sector was even worse than in other countries, because it strengthened militias who managed to put their men on the public payroll. The focus on the state as the country’s principle employer also prevented the establishment of the private sector, which would have been possible had more funds been used on alternative job training or to encourage private investment (pp.137-138).So again, we are left with a governance structure that defies the logic of established post-conflict reconstruction programs and neat ‘a new Marshall plan for Libya’ investments.
And there is no happy end in sight. ‘Libya’s energy wealth is a curse’ (p.223), the war escalated ‘into a foreign proxy war as both sides used drones supplied by UAE and Turkey” (p.232), ‘Turkey, the UAE, Jordan and Egypt sending even more weapons and fighters into a country that was already brimming with hardware and foreign militants’ (p.235) and ‘Libya hasn’t had national elections since 2014’ (p.236) are some of the “highlights” from the epilogue that contribute to a grim outlook for the country and at the same time highlighting new security challenges, power alliances and limitations to Western models of intervention, let alone reconstruction.
Challenging conventional foreign correspondent narratives
One positive aspect I found particularly interesting is that Laessing never attempts to contribute to the “foreign correspondent dodging bullets & drinking in a hotel room” narrative (I’m looking at you, ‘Love, Africa’...).
That may have to do with the fact that as journalist for Reuters he is less of a journalistic celebrity and of a more traditional ‘observer’, but ‘Germany’s least known journalist’ as someone called him on Twitter has a more private approach when he describes intimidating meetings with government officials, volatile trips to cities other than Tripoli and genuine health and safety concerns.
Ulf Laessing’s book really helps to understand Libya since Gaddafi. It offers a great balance between a factful and sober analysis of the complexities, but Laessing’s journalistic voice also has a space to frame the narrative in a more readable way. Regular readers of the blog already know that I am a big fan of Hurst’s publications and this book is no exception!
In the end, Understanding Libya Since Gaddafi is a sobering read that shows how little international actors are willing or able to contribute to a peaceful, positive future of the country. As new security challenges from migration flows to Russian mercenaries meet a failed state, we should pay more attention to Libya and try to outline a vision for 21st century peacebuilding fit not only for Libya, but also states like Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria that deserve more and better support from the proverbial ‘international community’.
Laessing, Ulf: Understanding Libya Since Gaddafi. ISBN 978-1-84904-888-0, 297pp, 17.99 GBP, London: Hurst, 2020.