Libya’s struggles continue to haunt the international community. Well over a year after Muammar Muhammad al-Qaddafi’s death at the hands of rebels forces in Sirte, midway between Tripoli and Benghazi, militant and sectarian groups compete with each other for control of key provinces and national resources. Last Thursday, an estimated one hundred militiamen disrupted proceedings of the Libyan National Congress, protesting the government’s proposal to “purge Qaddafi-era officials from public office”. Militia leaders noted that they agreed with the proposal, but feared that the National Congress would seek to dilute the bill’s efficacy in order to protect their own interests. The British Embassy waded into the protests, reminding Libyan political groups that the National Congress must be allowed to conduct its business safely, democratically and without harassment: “These people were chosen to represent Libya and it is important to give them space and security so that they may make their decisions”. The Embassy’s commentary was unsurprising, given both the United Kingdom’s recent involvement in the outcome of the Libyan Civil War, as well as Europe’s longstanding interest in Libya, its land, and peoples.
In the December 2012 issue of The Geographical Journal, James D Sidaway (University of Singapore) recounted Europe’s twentieth century predilection with Libya. His account artfully and succinctly contextualized Britain and France’s most recent intervention within the backdrop of often-complicated European-Libyan interests. Sidaway described Libya’s twentieth and twenty-first century geopolitics as “Subaltern”, deliberately borrowing from Joanne Sharp’s 2011 Geoforum article, where state regimes implement policies largely designed to sustain the regime’s survival, not dramatically enhance the populace’s welfare. Some of the blame for this, certainly, rested with Qaddafi’s egoistic desires to control Libya for the rest of his life (and beyond, through his sons). But the initial enthusiasm for his regime, and indeed the impetus behind his removal forty-odd years on, was to alter the nation’s relationship with Europe.
In the 1960s, Qaddafi took advantage of decades of nationalist anger against Europe and the United States to gain power. From the 1920s to the end of the Second World War, Libya was a proxy state under the control of Fascist Italy. Benito Mussolini envisioned Libya as the cornerstone in a “new Roman empire, by means of Italian settlement and planning and resting on the repression of all revolts and organised resistance” (297). Italian colonisation sought to impose European, not indigenous conceptions of order and society, a policy many Libyans continued to resent long after Mussolini’s capture and execution in 1945. But the end of international war did not mark the end of Libya’s entanglement with the West. After the Italian withdrawal, the British and American installed Idris, the Allied-backed leader of wartime Cyrenaica (eastern Libya), as the first monarch of the new Kingdom of Libya. “For the best part of [the next] two decades”, Sidaway argued, “Libya’s post-colonial trajectory was exemplary in the eyes of Western powers” (298). Idris’s foreign and domestic policies alike sought to maintain the elite’s status quo. Although Qaddafi radically shifted Libya’s path towards nationalism and secular Islamic authority after the 1969 coup, he too demonstrated a tendency to prioritise measures intended, first and foremost, to protect his regime’s stability vis-à-vis the West and its allies within Libya. Qaddafi’s Libya thus continued to be governed (and defined) as a response to European and American behaviour. Even as the Qaddafi regime slid towards collapse, its leader looked not to internal negotiations, but rather to Europe for a solution amenable, of course, to his interests (299). Support was not forthcoming, in part because the Libyan opposition revolted against Qaddafi, in part, because of his anti-Europe, anti-democratic stances. For better or worse, then, Libya has long been, and remains, in Europe’s strong gravitational pull.
The difficulty, as Sidaway reminded us, is that Libya’s complicated history, both with Europe and its African neighbours, has done much to erase memories of the region’s violent past (and present). In the 2008 festivities marking a formal rapprochement between Libya and Italy, for instance, few officials wished to discuss Qaddafi’s extensive human rights violations, or then-Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s leaked comments on the accord’s economic benefits.
Chris Stephen, Libyan national congress attacked by rogue militias, The Guardian, 7 March 2013.
James D Sidaway, 2012, Subaltern Geopolitics: Libya in the Mirror of Europe, The Geographical Journal 178.4, 296-301.
N Barbour, 1950, The Arabs of Cyrenaica: Review, The Sanusi of Cyrenaica by E E Evans-Pritchard, The Geographical Journal 115.1/3, 96-98.