Libya 101: Read Up on Nation’s History, Politics

Posted April 4, 2011 at 6:11pm

As NATO prepares to take over full command of military operations in Libya, many Americans are scrambling to learn more about the North African country, but it’s not easy. 

There is “shockingly little literature on Libya,” said Marc Lynch, associate professor of political science and international affairs and director of the Institute for Middle East Studies at George Washington University.

Still, Lynch and Frederic Wehrey, senior policy analyst at the RAND Corp., suggested five books for readers on Capitol Hill looking to put the current situation in Libya in context. 

A History of Modern Libya,” by Dirk Vandewalle, 2006

In less than 300 pages, this “foundational work” offers a standard political history of Libya, from the “trauma of the Italian occupation and the early hope that accompanied the Gadhafi coup d’etat,” Wehrey said. It also covers the subsequent political and economic developments that Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi generated, making it a complete and concise analytical overview of Libya’s contemporary history.

The State and Social Transformation in Tunisia and Libya,” by Lisa Anderson, 1987

An “old but good book,” Anderson’s work compares state-building in Libya and nearby Tunisia, Lynch said. Anderson, president of American University in Cairo, presents an in-depth historical analysis of the social and economic factors unique to the formation of states in both countries. There is also a special emphasis on the void left after the dissolution of the Italian occupation, which left Libya little hope for achieving a comprehensive institutional structure.  

Libya’s Qaddafi: The Politics of Contradiction,” by Mansour O. El-Kikhia, 1997

Author El-Kikhia was forced to flee Libya in the 1980s for speaking out against Gadhafi. Because of his personal history, Wehrey said, the book “might be a little painted and biased,” but he argues that it is an indispensable work nonetheless. El-Kikhia not only provides an informative account of how Gadhafi’s regime works, but he also paints a telling picture of the man who rules the country, including his ideology and his eccentricities.

The Libyan Paradox,” by Luis Martinez, 2007

Martinez’s “insights are amazing” in this explanation of the complicated relationship between the United States and Libya since Gadhafi first took power in 1969. “It’s a solid description of what conditions were like during the sanctions,” Wehrey said. “He gets into the culture and talks to the young people of Libya.” In the years following 9/11, Libya has tried to present a friendly face to the Western world, cutting ties to terrorists and giving up its weapons of mass destruction programs. The paradox, Martinez argues, is that Libya’s future lies in becoming an “authoritarian liberal state.”

Libya: From Colony to Independence,” by Ronald Bruce St. John, 2008

This book is accessible to casual readers and students of history alike. St. John covers Libyan history from the earliest evidence of nomadic tribes well into the later years of Gadhafi’s regime and presents it all in a coherent and readable narrative. St. John is a “solid” historian, Wehrey said.