Libya: Why it went wrong, and what should be done

The current power vacuum in Libya came about because of the poor intervention of the West, which in the wake of the revolution of 2011 did not contribute enough towards state building, and as a result, it will take one or two generations for a modern state to emerge. This is one of the conclusions of Professor Dirk Vandewalle, a leading expert on the North African country who gave a lecture on Tuesday entitled “The Libyan crisis and its implications on the broader Arab spring”.

The talk was organized by the American University of Kuwait (AUK) in collaboration with the Embassy of Belgium. Vandewalle served as a political advisor to Ian Martin, the United National special envoy in Libya in the summer of 2011, after the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi started, and then became the senior political advisor to the Carter’s Center electoral mission to Libya. He has spent 30 years studying Libya and the regime of the colonel whose dictatorship lasted almost 42 years. He is now associate professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth and author of “A History of Modern Libya”.

The failure of the Arab spring, which started in 2010, is according to Vandewalle in reality the failure of liberalism in the region. In the case of Libya in particular, the roots of this failure go back to the colonial period.


Tunisia and Libya, neighboring countries, constitute two opposites. Tunisia can be called a relative success following the revolt of 2010. Meanwhile, the Libyan revolution, which started in 2011 against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, turned into a total disaster.

“To fully understand the reasons for the different outcomes of the Arab spring we must go back to the Ottoman Empire,” explains Vandewalle. With the French revolution of 1789, the first liberal ideas were introduced in the Middle East and North Africa, pushing the Ottoman Empire to instigate reforms in order to meet new challenges.

This means both Tunisia and Libya started to move towards much more liberal political systems. In 1861 Tunisia had the first liberal Constitution of the Arab world and Libya followed quickly with the creation of a Republic in Tripoli. Unfortunately, only Tunisia remained liberal and became a relative success.

Tunisia was colonized by the French who incorporated locals in administration and who focused on education. After independence, Tunisia was blessed with a leader like president Habib Bourguiba who embarked on a vast program of state building. In Libya, on the contrary, the Italian colonizers imprisoned or killed half of the population of the Eastern Province, thus removing any appetite for a modern state. This became clear when the Libyan population, after the departure of the Italians, did not opt for a modern state structure but for a monarchy led by Idris,

Emir of Cyrenaica and Chief of the Senussi Muslim Order who of course did not contribute anything towards institution building in his reign that started in 1951. Nor did Gaddafi, the usurper of Idris’ throne, whose “Jamahiriya” set out to prove that the modern state was superfluous, relying instead on a system of patronage and the doling out of oil money.

These differences in degrees of state building in Tunisia and Libya would become decisive in the aftermath of the uprisings toppling Ben Ali and Gaddafi. While Tunisia was able to channel the anger, energy and will for change of the protests through existing institutions and translate it into a political compromise, Libya had no such institutions to fall back on and descended into anarchy.

The difficulty now is that the country is in deep chaos, divided between competitive governments, each with their own militias who are very powerful. There is a lack of institutional framework, and dialogue between factions is almost non-existent.


According to Vandewalle, Libya’s descent into hell could have been averted through prolonged and far-reaching assistance from the international community. The Libyans themselves on the other hand made the mistake of thinking that they could have handled the transition alone and feared that external help would undermine their legitimacy.

What should happen now is an external intervention to disarm the militias which are flush with money and weapons and are also in charge of the big business of smuggling people to Europe. Because the militias remain largely out of control of the government, any deal between Europe and the official government is unlikely to significantly decrease the number of migrants departing from Libya.

But taking a step back is also needed according to Professor Vandewalle. Instead of writing the constitution now, Libya needs a broad consultation among its people, followed by a referendum on the future form of their state, followed by the drafting of a constitution. Elections should happen at the end of this process, not at the start of it, as was the case in 2011.

Professor Vandewalle thinks liberalism is still possible in the Middle East, but that there is a long way to go. He appeals to the international community to think hard about the form and time span of any military intervention, now that we have seen exactly how much harm a failed state can do to its immediate neighbors and to the broader region.

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