Vandewalle on Libya: “A Tough Situation”

What will Libya do if Gaddafi isn’t pushed out? And what ought the West to do?What sort of turmoil might be in store for Libya if Muammar Gaddafi continues to cling to power through the use of force? Professor Dirk Vandewalle, a Dartmouth political scientist and expert on Libya who has been very much in demand recently, predicts that the current situation in Libya could develop in any number of ways, including a break up of the country on regional lines. I sat down with him for an interview yesterday to ask about those underlying regional and tribal tensions, why Col. Gaddafi is stark raving mad, and what course of action (if any) the United States ought to take in Libya in the coming weeks, months and years in Libya.

Charles S. Dameron

Interview after the jump…

The Dartmouth Review: I read in an interview you did with NPR that you didn’t really see this coming. When Tunisia and Egypt happened, you didn’t see revolution coming to Libya. Why is that?

Dirk Vandewalle: I think people who have looked at the country for a long time were aware that there were a number of very powerful reasons. The first reason was that this was truly a highly authoritarian society with lots of — literally dozens — of security organizations that all reported more or less directly to Gaddafi. And so, it looked like a very formidable kind of system to break down. So we knew that. We also knew, secondly, that the regime still had a certain amount of support among the population, particularly in Tripolitania.

So, in a sense, that was another thing; we didn’t really expect that that support for Gaddafi would be expressed so clearly. You know, everybody thought that when things started to go [in the rebels’ direction], it would just be kind of a steamroller effect. But in the end, it didn’t happen and in many ways, for reasons that I think Gaddafi hinted at throughout the years. You know, this whole tribal system that he had been utilizing in a classic divide-and-rule policy to support himself would in the end come and keep him in power. And it did.  

Professor Vandewalle, an associate professor of Government, teaches courses in the comparative study of the Middle East.TDR: The protests started in Benghazi [Libya’s second city]. Why did they start there and how does that reflect the tribal politics of the country?

DV: Well, Benghazi’s important because the history of Libya is the story of the creation of a very artificial country. It was created by the great powers essentially for strategic purposes after World War II. The United States and Great Britain both needed a military base — strategic bases as we called them at the time — because we needed to deliver nuclear weapons to the Soviet Union; at the time, as you know, we still didn’t have intercontinental ballistic missiles.

And so the two main provinces ­— Tripolitania in the west and Cyrenaica in the east — had traditionally been kind of wary of each other, had never really co-operated. As a matter of fact, there was an antagonism between the two, but they were artificially pushed together to create the kingdom of Libya in 1951. But that antagonism has never really disappeared completely.

Now, the man who became king of Libya was from Cyrenaica, and he had been associated with an old Sufi Islamic movement. During the period of the kingdom, which lasted eighteeen years, it was quite clear that the tribes in the eastern part of the country and those allied to the Senussi family profited quite handsomely from the new income growth because of the discovery of oil in 1959.

The antagonism has always remained, and it’s not surprising that even in the Gaddafi period a lot of the opposition movements that eventually emerged in Libya really emerged in Cyrenaica. Particularly in the 1990s, a lot of the religious opposition that emerged — kind of the more radical Islamic movements that emerged — really also were shaped in Cyrenaica. So, it’s really not that surprising that Cyrenaica emerged again as the opposition to Gaddafi. If you think of it historically, it’s only natural that it did.

An important catalyst of this protest was the arrest of a prominent human rights lawyer, who just happened to be in Cyrenaica at the time. He had been one of the lawyers defending some prisoners who had died in a pretty infamous prison uprising in 1996, where it’s estimated over a thousand prisoners were killed by the regime. This was a really, really kind of symbolic issue for many people and particularly in the eastern part of the country. So, when this lawyer was arrested in Cyrenaica, in Benghazi, that’s really what triggered the whole thing.

TDR: Do you think that it’s possible for this revolution to have nationwide traction if it’s a regional phenomenon? 

DV: Well, that’s a good question, and in light of what I’ve said, this traditional antagonism between the two provinces is one of the major problems.

I think Gaddafi realizes this: he’s using it very well it seems to me. He’s using this divide-and-rule policy that now pits Tripolitania against Cyrenaica even more. The danger is this artificial creation of Libya — which has never really been inculcated in Libyans, in the way they think about their state — Gaddafi really exacerbated that [lack of coherent national identity] for a long time.

In a sense, it wouldn’t be so surprising to see a break-up of the country where Tripolitania would go its own way and Cyrenaica would go its own way. The only thing that has ever held Libya together was really oil: the need to bring oil to the coast and to sell it to Europe and so on, in part because a lot of the relevant infrastructure is shared by both provinces.

Nevertheless, you could envision a scenario where the eastern part, Cyrenaica, could go its own way, re-do some of that infrastructure, use the refinery at Ras Lanuf, where a lot of the fighting is now about and create an independent state with the support of the tribes. That is, of course, if Gaddafi stays isolated in Tripoli for the foreseeable future.

TDR: What are your thoughts on Gaddafi? It seems from his public appearances lately that his grip on reality seems kind of tenuous sometimes. I read something you wrote about his change over his forty-year rule from being a rather striking revolutionary to what we see now. What’s happened there?

DV: I think what happened to Gaddafi is what happens to a lot of dictators, in the sense that you live a very isolated life. No one — and you see this to an extreme extent in Libya — no one could really tell anything to Gaddafi. He was the absolute master. Even the people closest to him — I have seen him kind of up close — even among his closest advisors, there’s an extreme sense of deference to him. Particularly after 1975-1976, when the Green Book was published — which he considered to be his kind of revolutionary tract that would guide the revolution — no one really questioned him any more. I think you could see this over time: he internalized what he himself was saying, and since no one was questioning it, it became the truth. He was almost like a demi-god: anything Gaddafi said automatically by definition became truth.

I think he started to internalize that, and it was very clear that this was somebody who had really become divorced from reality, because reality was what he thought it was. It no longer mattered what average Libyans were experiencing, or what anyone would dare tell him.

The really unfortunate thing is that, particularly after 2003, there was an attempt to rehabilitate him, and the Libyans went on a big PR campaign to make Gaddafi look like he truly was this world revolutionary leader, as he often described himself. Unfortunately, I think a lot of Western intellectuals were complicit in that, going to Tripoli to talk to the leader about democracy, his ideas about democracy, and so on. Whereas anybody who has ever read one page of the Green Book should have known that this was absolute rubbish. 

TDR: When was the last time you were in Libya?

DV: May of last year.

TDR: What are the conditions like there for the average person? You said that Gaddafi’s really out of touch with the reality of his country. What is the reality of his country?

DV: Things improved a lot after 2003, and even slightly before, because the regime realized that it was in some internal difficulty. Whereas even ten, fifteen years ago, it was very difficult to get consumer goods in Libya, particularly for the average person, that really dramatically improved — sort of as a safety valve, because the regime realized what was going on. 

The situation when I was there last May was completely different from when I went in the first time to do research in 1985, 1986, and 1987. There are even some supermarkets now. The old state supermarkets had been converted into regular supermarkets. There was certainly a flourishing private entrepreneurial sector for retail.

On the other hand, of course, everyone kind of knew his place in Libya. The very clear sign of a highly authoritarian regime — virtually totalitarian — is that you know you don’t have to repress your citizens very much, because everyone already understands exactly what they can do, what can be said in public. There were no real signs of public repression. Everyone sort of understood. It was truly Orwellian: everybody knew exactly what they could do, what they could say. There was an enormous amount of self-censorship that went on within the population. That started to loosen up a little bit after 2003, but not very substantially.  

The United States ought to stand ready to provide state-building assistance in the wake of a power vacuum in Libya, according to Professor Vandewalle.TDR: The talk in the US now is focused on whether or not the United States and the international community should get involved by enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya, or actively supporting the rebels. What are your thoughts on that? What do you think the Libyan reaction would be to an international intervention?

DV: This is a very, very tough situation for the United States. The first point is that I’m not sure that we want to be seen in any sort of way as interfering again in another Muslim country. You know, we have two wars going on. On the other hand, we should be very, very clear. What Secretary Gates said is absolutely correct: people talk about a no-fly solution as if that’s simply means that you get some ships offshore and you watch what the Libyans are doing. No, it effectively means that you have to intervene. You’re going to have to take out communications systems and so, you know, it really is an act of war. We are directly attacking a sovereign country.

In light of what we’ve just talked about, the history of the whole country, I think it’s very problematic, because intervention may effectively encourage the kind of division that I think is in no one’s interest, either ours or Libya’s. I think it would be very unwise for the United States at this point to intervene in any way except on a humanitarian basis, and through multilateral organizations like the UN and so on.

We also should be very clear: we have no national interest in Libya. You know, we were not affected by oil from Libya and we have some economic interest certainly, but certainly we have no strategic interest or military interest at all in Libya. For historical reasons even recognizing, for example, the provisional government in Cyrenaica [is risky]. If we do that, Tripolitanians are automatically going to be saying, “What is the United States doing recognizing a government that obviously we’re antagonistic towards.” So I think that for a number of historical — but also very practical — reasons, and because of the fact that we really have no national interest in Libya, I think the United States should not intervene at all. 

TDR: Do you think there’s any chance of going back to Gaddafi rule for the whole of Libya? Do you think that’s still a possibility?

DV: I think that possibility is very, very slight at this point. It would take an enormous amount of military power to re-conquer the eastern part of the country. What we’re seeing is that he’s already so preoccupied just trying to hold on to what is there. Certainly, the Gaddafi forces are making strategic forays into the east and west: to Zawiya to the west and the Ras Lanuf area in the east.

But that really depends primarily on his air force at this point. My impression is that you should think of this as a war of attrition, which in a sense it is. Wars of attrition rely not just on pure military power, but on a number of other factors, including the ability of the leader to keep convincing people around him that they’re still in power. There are a number of other things here, and if you look at it that way, I think the ability of Gaddafi has already been undercut substantially. It’s my hunch that that will degrade even further as we go along. I don’t really see the possibility anymore of Gaddafi being able to re-conquer the eastern part of Libya.

TDR: One of the concerns I’ve heard is that if Gaddafi ends up falling, because of forty years of authoritarian rule, there are very few centers of power outside of his office. What do you think a post-Gaddafi Libya would look like?

DV: I think it would look very chaotic. For example, right now in Tripolitania, we’ve seen this creation of a national council, but you know that’s all in the euphoria of having defeated Gaddafi. My hunch is that once Gaddafi fell, you would indeed see the political vacuum that you describe. What we will have is a really chaotic situation. Some of the tribes may rise up against each other. Some of the tribes may try to settle scores because some of them were privileged during the Gaddafi period.

Here is where I think the United States could play a very important role: we should be very pro-active, and go in as early as we see even the glimmerings of Gaddafi’s fall, and then extend our expertise in providing for governance.

It seems to me that one of the things that should be done very early on is try to create a truth and reconciliation commission, as we’ve seen in other countries; otherwise, we’re going to see a bloodletting in Libya. In that, the United States has an enormous amount of expertise, and could be a very valuable interlocutor; but then beyond that again, the United States has a lot of expertise on political governance and expertise on economic reform, economic reconstruction and so on. And that will be in very high demand in Libya, if Gaddafi were to go. So I see a very clear role for the United States, but not until the regime is gone.

TDR: Many American conservatives might worry that this vacuum will lead to an Islamist or fundamentalist regime in Libya. What do you think the odds of that are? How strong are the country’s religious fundamentalists?

DV: There’s no sense denying that in any kind of chaotic situation — and that’s what Libya’s increasingly turning into — there will be groups that try to maximize their influence and I would think that certainly there are some radical Islamic elements, in Eastern Libya in particular, that we know of and certainly those may try to do the same thing.

The question, however, is whether or not they would be able to organize in a coherent fashion that would allow them to rise as a true political force. And here, I think my argument would be: perhaps not. Not only because Gaddafi has effectively destroyed a lot of the infrastructure of the organization, but also because, just knowing Libya, I sense that there would be very little support for radical Islamic organizations. Remember that particularly in Cyrenaica — the Senussi family and so on — that part of Islam is really Sufi Islam, the Senussi lodges were Sufi lodges. And Sufi Islam doesn’t have as great a history of violence and upheaval the way that some of these radical Islamic movements have. So, I don’t — it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be careful and keep an eye on it, but I don’t think that radical Islamic movements really have a future in Libya.

TDR: How did you first get started in studying Libya? Why did you make Libya your specialty, your academic specialty?

DV: Well, I was always fascinated by the role that oil plays in the economic development of a lot of Arab countries; but I was also interested in how oil could be used for political control and patterns of patronage and so on, which we’ve seen throughout the Arab oil states. There was something really exciting about studying that in Libya, because not only did you have the normal pattern of oil and development, but you also have this individual, Gaddafi, who cloaked all of this in a very strong ideological language. I was very attracted to studying how this relatively young man was able to use not only oil proceeds, but also his charismatic leadership to create this system that was really quite antagonistic towards the West. That was kind my intellectual interest in it.

I was also fairly lucky because at the time — this was in 1986-1987 — I had a Belgian passport, before I became a U.S. citizen.  You may remember this was a time when there were all kinds of sanctions against Libya; thus, no US academic could go into Libya to study. In a sense, I was the only one that could do so and had an interest in doing so. I went on a Belgian passport, off and on for about ten years. I was really the only Western academic working in Libya. I had full access from the lowest to the highest levels of the Libyan government, so it was a unique opportunity to work in a country where no one else was really working at the time. Then I got my first book published on Libya and by that time I was really considered one of the very few experts on Libya. That kind of determined my path from then on, so to speak.

TDR: You’ve been much in demand by the press for your expertise on Libya; have you been much in demand in Washington?

DV: There’s certainly — as you can imagine — interest in Washington on how a lot of this will get settled, how this will shake out and particularly, as I mentioned to you, the kind of activities that the U.S. government should pursue.

As you know, one of the big things in Washington is that you have people who say, “We should go in, have a no-fly zone, it’s our duty,” and then others who say, “We really shouldn’t do that because it’s not in our national interest. It’s also not in the interest of Libyans.”  On a number of occasions, I’ve been consulted and I try to give what I think is an objective answer that is both in the interest of the United States and the Libyan interest.

TDR: Well, thanks very much. I appreciate your taking the time to meet.

DV: No problem.