The Gateway Podcast: Why Experts and Journalists Have Libya All Wrong

Published August 29th, 2018 - 10:15 GMT


By Ty Joplin


William Lawrence thinks we have Libya all wrong.

The two words that often come to mind with Libya is chaos, and tribes. Libya’s politics is both chaotic to the extant that it’s intractable, and tribal to the extent that a national government isn’t possible. But this could be out-dated thinking, and it could cost Libya its future.

William Lawrence has spent decades studying the country, working in its US embassy in the mid 2000s and becoming a regular fixture in academic and think tank analysis on Libya. He’s currently a professor at George Washington University; before he was the director of Crisis Group’s North Africa division.

“I hate using the word chaos for Libya, because it’s an organized chaos. I think the organized elements are more interesting than the chaotic elements,” Lawrence said in an interview with Al Bawaba.



“The main set of issues in Libya have been there prior to the revolution, are continuing now and have gotten better in some ways and gotten worse in some ways. Most Libyans don’t deal in chaos from the day-to-day.”

Lawrence is one of the few analysts who have been pushing to frame the current politics of Libya not in terms of the radical shifts that have taken place since the 2011 revolution and subsequent conflicts, but rather in terms of the constant organizing principles that have been there for decades.

“I think chaos is a lazy term,” for things we don’t want to understand, Lawrence claims, making sure to provide an easy-to-understand breakdown of what Libyan politics actually is: “Give it a word: it’s communal. It was communal politics before, it’s communal politics now.”

Communal not in the sense of tribes, but in kinship, living close to each other, graduating in the same class or simply being near in age. The idea of tribes being the central organizing principles, Lawrence argues, is a dangerous simplification that falls into the trap of neo-colonial thinking on the Middle East in general.

Lawrence goes in detail about how old empires including the Ottomans, purposefully bolstered tribes and made them more politically powerful and thus more socially emphasized, as a means of co-opting populations under its control. Now, many analysts are calling for peace to start on the tribal level in Libya: for Lawrence, this is a regressive and counterproductive starting point. Most young adults simply don’t identify with their tribes.

Compared to Yemen and Syria, “Libya is far easier to solve.” There’s only about six million people, three million of whom are elderly or children. People are inter-connected, sometimes having the contact information of the person they are fighting saved in their phones. “Libya is like a city in conflict… everybody sort of knows everybody else… It’s not some kind of huge country with massive ethnic divisions and camps of regions pitted against each other.”

To listen to the full conversation, click here:

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