LIBYA: A History of Modern Libya/Forgotten Voices: Power and Agency in Colonial and Postcolonial Libya

Article excerpt

LIBYA A History of Modern Libya, by Dirk Vandewalle. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006. xxviii + 206 pages. Maps. Notes to p. 217. Bibl. to p. 225. Index to p. 246. $75 cloth; $23.99 paper.

Forgotten Voices: Power and Agency in Colonial and Postcolonial Libya, by AIi Abdullatif Ahmida. London, UK and New York: Routledge, 2005. xvi + 85 pages. Maps. Tables. Illust. Gloss, to p. 90. Notes to p. 103. Index to p. 108. $27.95 paper.

Dirk Vandewalle is an associate professor of government at Dartmouth College. He is the author of Libya since Independence: oil and State-building and the editor of Qadhafi's Libya, 1969-1994, and he has long been recognized as one of the preeminent scholars of contemporary Libya. A History of Modern Libya, based on considerable field research, enhances Vandewalle's reputation as an informed, sensitive, and nuanced observer.

That said, the book is not what its title suggests it to be. In lieu of providing a history of modern Libya, as the author readily admits in his introduction, the book "can perhaps more accurately be described as a social and political economy study of the country" (p. 9). To be precise, it is largely an examination of the political economy of 20th century Libya with an emphasis on the post-1969 Qadhafi era. The early history of Libya, from Phoenician, Greek, and Roman times through almost four centuries of Ottoman occupation is treated in a cursory manner, and there is almost no discussion of the rich social, cultural, and intellectual history of modern-day Libya.

The core argument of the book, developed and expanded in each chapter, is that the rulers of Libya, from colonial to modern times, have avoided "the process of state-building that normally includes the steady expansion of the administrative reach of the state, as well as a growing incorporation of local citizens in that process." Even today, the author continues, "it remains problematic to consider its people truly as citizens." Despite his rhetoric, Qadhafi tends to view them more as personal subjects, doing little to create confidence in the more impersonal institutions of a modern state. "To that extent, the Qadhafi regime shows a remarkable continuity with the monarchy that preceded it," creating "a political system that will face considerable challenges in the future" (p. 1). This is a powerful thesis that Vandewalle argues well.

In the process, he adds much to our understanding of Libya, especially its political system. In one section, for example, he explores the Qadhafi regime's successful use of myths and symbols to bridge the gap between the formal political structures outlined in The Green Book and the reality of an exclusionary political system. …