Interview With Dirk Vandewalle

Editor’ s Note: Associate Professor of Government Dirk Vandewalle has spent nearly a quarter century studying Libya and the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi, writing two books on the subject and serv- ing as editor for two more. Recently, he served as an advisor in Libya, spending a number of months there as the country prepared for its first elections in over fifty years.

Executive Editor Coleman Shear sat down with Professor Vandewalle following the September 11th murder of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and four other Americans.

The Dartmouth Review: After the embassy attack and anti-militia protests in Benghazi, do you
see the militias as responding to the outcry against them?

Professor Dirk Vandewalle: Certainly you have to distinguish between what are considered in Libya to be genuine militias, credited militias of people that have come out of the civil war, and rogue militias consisting of people that had absolutely nothing to do with the civil war at all, but have very opportunistically formed themselves in its wake and are trying to gain all kinds of concessions from the government.

What happened in Benghazi was actually done by one of the rogue militias and what we have seen is that the government in Libya doesn’t have enough capacity yet to bring all of these militias under control. It’s trying very hard to do so, but it’s a continuing struggle.

Meanwhile, we have these rogue groups out there trying to pursue their own agendas at the expense of the government. It really is a very confusing situation at this particular point in time and the government is trying to integrate the legitimate militias into the government side. They have done this in a number of ways: trying to incorporate them into the army, into the civil service police training, and so on.

On the other hand, it’s also very clear, par- ticularly with the killing of Ambassador Stevens, that the government is at this point determined to do away with these rogue militias. There is an enormous amount of convergence between the government and the Libyan people. This was just one demonstration; there have been several like it over the last two months. What the people of Libya are saying is, ‘look we want law and order, and these rogue militias really have no place, these militias that align themselves with radical Islam.’

TDR: Al-Qaeda and similar groups.

DV: Exactly, they really have no place in Libya.

TDR: We constantly hear about Al-Qaeda affiliated militia groups in places like Syria and Yemen. What is the key difference between the North African Muslims and Middle Eastern Arabs in their attitudes toward these groups?

DV: In a sense, what we see, particularly in Libya but also to some extent in Tunisia, is the emergence of this moderate Islamic Movement centered on Rashid Al-Ghannushi. It’s quite clear that these radical groups have much less traction in North Africa than they did in some of the other parts of the Middle East. That may have something to do with the fact that a lot of the leadership of the newly emerging governments in both Tunisia and in Libya has a good amount of legitimacy.


It’s quite different [than the Middle East] and we’ve seen now that in both Tunisia and Libya, and to some extent in Egypt, a civil society becoming quite sophisticated, politically, and is making its own demands, saying, ‘Look this is not us. This is not Islam, and certainly this is not the way we want to be seen by the outside world—as these kinds of radical fringe elements of the Islamic religion. There’s no room for them in North Africa.’

TDR: What role has the large Berber population in North Africa played? How have they affected the Arab Spring, despite it being largely an Arab event?

DV: This vocal minority, particularly in Tunisia, certainly in Morocco, and a little bit in Libya, has had an impact to the extent that there are people who can question the true identity of the modern state, in each case. We started to see in Libya, for example, that the Tuareg—the Berbers—are starting to demand concessions from the state and what they’re saying is, ‘We’re not this homogenous group that you expect us to be.’ These demands are very varied and do not always have to do with Islam, and in many ways go far beyond it. The political system is a bit different and these groups feel entitled to challenge the state, which I think it would be very difficult in other places, particularly Egypt.

TDR: Libya is a more ethnically unified country than many in the Islamic world, but do you still see the split between Tripolitania and Benghazi as playing a role in the politics of the country?

DV: Traditionally there has always been friction between the two provinces. Gaddafi played this up to exploit it for his own political purposes. Although I don’t want to underestimate the differences, they are not so big.

There is a Federalist movement in Cyrenaica that has been singularly unsuccessful. It is headed by Ahmed al-Senussi, the grandson of the former King, and all polling indicates that this group is not very successful. They have about 5,000 followers, but the point is also that they started a political party that has very little traction in Libya. Furthermore, it’s splitting even more.

The traditional division of east and west in Libya has really been exaggerated. If anything, the civil war has brought to light the fact that if Libyans re- ally want to move forward, they have to find some kind of solution. While there might be some kind of decentralization, the current leadership is against it. The kind of autonomy that the radical Federalist figures in Cyrenaica are asking for has gotten very little traction.

We also shouldn’t forget that the fact that both sides depend on the oil industry, and the infrastructure and the bureaucratic system that supports it. The effort to market oil has led to an integration of Libya that makes this Feder- alist movement a non-starter at this particular point of time.

TDR: How do you see the reentrance of Libya into the international community affecting global oil prices, particularly futures and spot prices?

DV: Initially a lot of people thought that, because of the civil war, there would be a major kind of dislocation that would take place. It turns out, for the kind of sweet oil that Europe wants in particular, the Saudis make a lot, so there was much less of an upheaval than anyone had expected.

My hunch is that, to a large extent, the pull mechanism is still provided by Saudi Arabia, which is really the sweet producer and will continue to be so for a while. The market is changing a little bit, but overall we have been looking at a steady ratcheting up in price, but nothing major or Earth-shaking over the couple of years or so.

TDR: How do you think the evolution of moderate Islamic parties will play out in North Africa? How will North Africa’ s relationship with the West be affected?

DV: So far what we’ve seen in Tunisia and Libya is that both countries, particularly Libya, have opted for a more personalistic interpretation of Islam—a much more moderate version—and these protests that we’ve seen in Benghazi are an indication that people are very clearly saying, ‘Look, we don’t want any radical vision of Islam.’

In a sense, a lot of Libyans go back to the Sufi model of Islam and the Samussiya movement in the 19th century. That played a major influence and was extended during the kingdom, so the population of North Africa is saying, We don’t want anybody, whether it is Islamists or a secular party, telling us what we should be doing. Civil societies are growing, we want to go our own way.’ We are going to see that North Africa could very well become the end of the radical Islamic.


What we’ve seen in the rest of the Arab World, and certainly what we’ve seen in Libya, is that Is- lamic parties don’t do well at all. I think over time they’ll do a little bit better, in part because they were so repressed under Gaddafi that they really had no organization to start with. They also had some pretty unsophisticated political programs for the election and so on, so I think they will improve their stand- ing, but it’s very clear to me they will not come to dominate the political landscape.

In many countries, particularly in North Africa, the radical Islamists really are a fringe. That is true both in Tunisia and in Libya. So far, I think that will be a major marker between North Africa and the Middle East. In North Africa, the overall political sentiment will be a bit more secular, although every political movement incorporates some Islamic elements, just not the kind of radical Islam that we’ve seen.


TDR: Right now it seems like Americans are seeing two very different images painted by the pundits on both sides. On one hand, we see the images of this Libyan outcry against the militias and extremism. On the other hand, we see the controversy over the recent film portraying the Prophet Mohammad, the mass protests, and the storming of the embassy. Which picture do you think is more accurate for the future of the Middle East and North Africa?

DV: In general, the more peaceful, more thoughtful interpretation is more likely. You shouldn’t take the example of what a few radicals are doing as the embodiment of Islam, just like you shouldn’t take what a few crackpots are doing in making a movie about Islam as being representative of Christians in the United States. My hunch is that Libyans and North Africans fall in between.

For all that has happened, these are relatively advanced political systems. They’ve had their traditional state building. They’ve had their na- tionalist struggles. This is not the tabula rasa. For that reason, we’ ll see that they’ re concerned about economic development and state building. Any kind of group, whether Islamic or non-Islamic, that does not accept that will be judged quite negatively by the population.

TDR: You’ve become one of the world’s foremost authorities on Libya. Are you currently working with the new Libyan government or the State Department on policy?

DV: I was the senior political advisor to the Carter Center for their electoral mission in Libya, which entailed providing political advice during the elections. Now the Carter Center will go back to into Libya and I will continue to provide them some expertise..

We’re now in a stage where people are starting to evaluate what is going on in Libya. Was our intervention good? Is this a credible government? Will Libya really become democracy or at least move towards a democracy in the Middle East? Libya is very interesting because all of the assumptions that we’ve had: that oil exporters are highly authoritar- ian, that they deny their populations a political voice, that they’re completely corrupted, and so on. The jury’s still out, but Libya may be the exception to those assumptions. It may become a good exa of responsible state building.

TDR: The exception to the resource curse.

DV: Exactly. That’s exactly what I’ve said in a couple of articles: it may very well be the exception to the resource curse. From that point of view, it’s very exciting.

I’m doing a lot of work now with think
tanks, government sources, and so on to evaluate. Obviously Libya still needs a lot
of work and will continue to need a lot of help. One of the really interesting things about Libya is that it has one of the very few governments that has realized that they need expertise, that they don’t know the answers, and they’re willing to take that expertise. I have, along with a number of organizations that I work with, been trying to bring that expertise to the Libyans.

TDR: There are still Gaddafi loyalists in the west and far south of the country, and clashes still occur. How did Gaddafi appeal to these regions of continued resistance?

DV: In the West we always like to paint leaders that we don’t like, or who seem irrational to us, in a particular fashion. The way we’ve always portrayed Gaddafi is: how could anybody really like this guy? How could anyone pledge political allegiance to him?

The fact is that he maintained a very carefully calibrated patronage system that benefited a lot of people including those allied to his tribes, people who lived in Bani Walid [in the west], people who, from a tribal point of view, were very important to Gaddafi. These people owed loyalty to Gaddafi and some of them are still quite loyal to him. To us, it may look very strange that you may pledge al- legiance or hold allegiance even now for a dictator who destroyed a lot of lives, but this whole patronage system has benefited some people. To them, Gaddafi was in many ways a credible figure. The fact that he was seen as anti-Western, standing up to the West, gave him a lot of credibility among some of his own people.

TDR: There has been a lot of debate in the media as to whether Gaddafi’s apparent irrationality was an intentional portrayal to cultivate fear in the west. Do you think he was acting, or had actually become so erratic?

DV: I always describe it like this: Gaddafi lived in nickel chamber. That is, if you’ve been the dictator for that long, no one can tell you the real truth in anymore. In a sense, you’ve become a demigod in your own country. Every word you
 it’ s written down in articles in the newspapers. You’re the ultimate authority. So no one can say anymore that the emperor looks naked.

What happened to Gaddafi was the self-reverential attitude that we started to see. That kind of narcissism was a reflection of the fact that he lived for several years now, the last twenty years or so, in a very self-reverential and closed world. Frankly, I think he believed everything he said and no one could oppose him. You hear what you want to hear and no one else can say that what you’re doing is not correct, so you build your own world around it. That is essentially what Gaddafi became.

TDR: Did you ever visit Libya during the Gaddafi period?

DV: Yes, I visited Libya all the way back. I started serious research in Libya in 1986 and I’ve been there every single year, several times a year, since.

TDR: How were you able to get in?

DV: I got in because I had a Belgian passport. There was an embargo from the United States, and then from the United Nations, but I could go in as a Belgian, so I was the only researcher there for almost fifteen years.

TDR: What did you notice about the country during its under Gaddafi? What was the experience like?

DV: I truly would describe Gaddafi’s Libya as almost totalitarian. Once you were inside, everyone assumed that you were legitimate, because how else would you be able to get into the country? It was relatively easy to do research and talk to people.
I was never followed or anything; I didn’t have a minder, but the atmosphere in the country was really scary. People were very scared about talking publicly. It took very, very long to develop personal friends I could talk to in private. People were constantly looking over their shoulder and the whole system, even down to the every day life of people, was dominated by this political system and by Gaddafi.


As it got into the 1980s and 1990s there was an incredible secret security organization with an informer literally on every block, in every city, and in every village in Libya. People were very closely watched. It was very difficult to develop any personal contacts. It took a long time before I was able to work myself into that society.


TDR: What is a final message you can tell our readers about the future of Libya, North Africa, and the Middle East?

DV: Particularly looking at Libya, there may be some sign for optimism. Even after prolonged periods of dictatorship, and despite all the efforts by this very vicious regime to annihilate any kind of organized political interest and to fracture civil society, we may be moving toward a real political system. It may not be perfect, and it certainly will take a lot longer until it resembles a modern democracy, but I think there is optimism for countries like that. Part of that optimism should also be the realization, as the Libyan’s perfectly realize, that there is a lot of expertise needed. The West can and should play a positive role in helping these countries along.

TDR: Thank you very much for your time Professor Vandewalle.

DV: You’re very welcome, thanks.

–Coleman E. Shear