Since the uprisings that spread across the Arab region took hold in Libya in 2011 and forced the removal of longtime ruler Muammar al-Gadhafi, the country’s fortunes have spiraled downwards. Despite an unsustainable system of governance, Gadhafi’s harsh rule had maintained relative stability in a country with a history of tribal division. With the absence of effective institutions and incompetent international intervention by both a NATO coalition and regional neighbors, civil war quickly engulfed the North African state. Since that time, there has been limited coverage and understanding of events inside the country, save for its role in the migration crisis and the influx and growth of ISIS within its borders. It has also become infamous for the 2012 attack on the US embassy in Banghazi, which killed, among several others, Ambassador Chris Stevens. In his new book The Burning Shores, Frederic Wehrey compiles years of experience and reporting into an accessible volume that narrates post-Gadhafi Libya through his own observations and from the vantage point of the numerous stakeholders with whom he had contact. He spoke with Managing Editor Sarah El-Shaarawi about his experiences in the country and his reasons for writing the book.
ARAB MEDIA & SOCIETY: I want to start by asking you why you wrote this book, and more to the point, who did you write it for?
FREDERIC WEHREY: I wrote the book for a non-specialist audience, and it really sprung from this desire to counter an image in the Western mind and especially the American public consciousness that Libya, after 2011, and especially 2012, sort of dropped off the radar. The revolution failed, the NATO intervention was a mistake, and the country has been unintelligible chaos ever since. I really wanted to challenge that narrative and show there’s an ongoing struggle in Libya. There’s real politics being lived, there are different actors, and there are different visions for political order in Libya. The story of Libya is ongoing and I wanted to tell that story in a narrative fashion and sort of unpack the politics of it. Identify points when things went wrong, certainly identify mistakes by the international community after Gadhafi’s fall, but also give more agency to Libyans and acquaint the reader with who the major players are, and which different visions they represent.
AMS: Where do you think this narrative comes from? Of course we live in this 24-hour news cycle and there is always, in any context, a lot of critical detail missing, but I think it is even more so the case in Libya given how divided the country is in terms of tribal factions and just how complicated the landscape is. What do you think fed this narrative that you’re trying to counter?
FW: In 2012 you had parliamentary elections that were quite successful, the international media covered that. Then, of course, you had the tragic attack on the US diplomatic facilities in Benghazi. After that it became more dangerous to cover Libya and the politics became more complex, so there wasn’t a clear narrative for journalists to latch onto. There were some shorthand explanations to try to divide Libya between Islamists and secularists, and the president of the United States said we underestimated the depth of their tribal complexities. All these dimensions are sort of shorthand narratives. It is a very complex struggle. It’s hard to identify who the actual conflict actors are, and what they represent. I try to do that in my book in an accessible way. I think first is the complexity of it and the inaccessibility of the country, and the second thing is Libya always became important for something else for the United States or for Europeans. That something else was counterterrorism with the Islamic State, then the catastrophic migrant crisis. Obviously these are important issues, and I certainly devote chapters of the book to them, but underneath those crises, there is this ongoing struggle by Libyans to determine their political destiny.
AMS: You mention that the US government underestimated the depths of the tribal divisions in the country. In the book you discuss in detail the process of the US deciding whether or not they would intervene, as well as the NATO intervention more broadly. You say there was a plan in place, but a lack of willingness to carry out the plan fully given what had happened in Afghanistan and Iraq. You also point out that there was an absence of regional expertise when those decisions were being made. Given these factors, do you think a deeper commitment would have actually sowed a better result?
FW: These are always difficult counterfactuals. I think the US was clearly committed to not investing a massive presence on the ground after Gadhafi’s fall. They especially wanted to avoid a militarization of the US presence as they had done in Iraq, so they really pushed the post-conflict recovery to the United Nations and the Europeans. Those actors made Libyan ownership the mantra, and it was a noble aspiration to let Libyans drive the process. The problem is the Libyans were divided and they inherited from Gadhafi this broken system that left them no institutions to really govern themselves. There were a lot of things that were somewhat inherited from Gadhafi’s rule. That said, there were a number of instances where the international community, including the United States, if they had taken certain steps the chaos would not have been as great as it is. I develop some of those ideas in my book as to whether even a limited stabilization force might have helped on the ground. Also, how the Libyan government started spending its money, there are questions about perhaps more international oversight of that. The regional intervention by Arab states, I think really worsened Libya’s divides, and there are questions about whether the US could have stopped the regional states from intervening. So there are some very big philosophical questions. Even if the US had the commitment, could they have stopped that? All of those questions are raised. I know the State Department and the United Nations have been looking very hard at the post conflict stage in Libya to try to rethink how they do these things to include holding elections, [and ask questions like] how do you deal with the militias, how do you disarm them, there’s all sorts of procedural things that are being examined in the wake of this.
AMS: I noticed you mentioned the ominous warning that was given by several members of the Gadhafi family of a devastating civil war being imminent should they be removed. We often hear whisperings of nostalgia, from Libyans or people who have some relation to Libya, for the country under Gadhafi. You still go back and forth quite frequently, I know you were recently in Sirte.
FW: Yes—I was in Sirte in late November, early December.
AMS: So has that been your experience as well? Are you seeing optimism for the future, and if you are seeing optimism how is it being expressed?
FW: This is normal following revolutions—a sort of nostalgia for the old order—things get worse before they get better. And certainly from a pure security standpoint, under Gadhafi, when I was there you could walk the streets of Tripoli at midnight, there was security. The afflictions of basic services you find in Tripoli; people don’t have medical services, cash, there are water shortages, electricity blackouts, and then the spate of kidnappings. I mean sure those afflictions will lead to some nostalgia for the old order, but that’s also glossing over the tradeoffs. This was an incredibly brutal dictatorship that silenced dissent, that was throwing people in prison. The fact is, there was a lot bubbling beneath the surface and it was not a durable system so when these dictatorships fall, they fall very hard. I think some nostalgia is understandable, but I don’t see it translating into a wholesale movement to return to that system of rule, although you do have people in the east who would prefer a strongman type of rule—you know this notion that only the army can guarantee security—and of course we see this elsewhere in the Arab world. Now on the positive side, I still see Libyans engaged in democratic politics at the local level, you’ve had municipal elections, you have elected town councils that are exercising democracy, that are enjoying legitimacy, you have thriving civil society, you have youth movements that are starting tech startups, you have an entrepreneurial spirit, you have elections forecasted for later this year. There are a lot of questions about the wisdom of that and whether they will actually be held, but it shows that Libyans have not disengaged from politics, so I think these are all encouraging signs.
AMS: You have been outspoken about your belief that the US could ramp up diplomatic efforts to support these more local initiatives or more local governance. Can you explain that a little more specifically?
FW: The United States has already been doing that; there have been visits by mayors of these towns to the US. There is a lot of training going on, civil society engagement on the local level, educational support, the Fulbright exchange has been restarted after a period of suspension. When I was testifying before Congress there was immense interest in the municipal level approach and, you know, this notion that democracy starts at the bottom. That said, that can only get you so far, because there are enormous problems at the national level, in the capital, with political paralysis and especially national economic corruption with the way oil revenues are being distributed. These municipal governments often don’t have adequate budgets. I think the US approach should be two ways: work from the bottom up, but the US also needs to get engaged at higher levels to include helping with diplomatic settlements and helping with economic reform. We did that in the past. What I hear from the United Nations is that there is a huge role for the United States to play, and that only the United States can play, at the high diplomatic level, and unfortunately we’re not playing it. We don’t have an ambassador. Under the Obama administration, we had a special envoy that really signaled top level engagement, but we don’t have that now under the Trump administration.
AMS: The other side of this, and you do make reference to this in your book, is the suspicion toward intervention, and the accusation that intervention is coming in the form of foreign agents with the goal of destabilization, or to seize control, how much are you seeing of that attitude?
FW: There’s been those latent suspicions ever since the revolution. Gadhafi pushed this propaganda line of a predatory, imperial West that was trying to grab the oil, and that reflected itself in a divided Libyan opinion after the revolution: yes, we want Western help, but we don’t want too much, and we’re fearful of this backsliding toward occupation. There are all sorts of narratives in Libya that the United States has been backing one faction whether the Islamists, whether certain towns like Misrata, I think this is just part of doing business. That narrative is going to be out there. Operationally, I think Libyans are still engaged with the United States. They’re eager for US support. As I mentioned, they’re the recipients of these development programs and trainings. That said, I think foreign actors in Libya have aligned themselves with certain factions at certain points whether to counter the migrant crisis or to counter terrorism. That creates a perception among other factions that you’re backing one side. I think that’s just a risk whenever you engage in such a divided country.
AMS: You mention the leaked cables, the content that Wikileaks released and it seemed that prior to the revolution, the younger members of the Gadhafi family and those around the Gadhafi family were more amenable and open to working with the Americans and with the international community but that there was still substantial suspicion from the old guard, I’m interested to know how many of those old guard are still in the picture, and whether that openness after all of this has sort of sustained or even grown.
FW: The openness, or this reformist current, was sort of illusory where by 2010 you really had the slowdown of that reformist impulse within the Gadhafi circle and then of course during the revolution the family circled the wagons. Those individuals many of them are dead or in prison, they fled the country, some of them have been brought back into the fold: ex-intelligence officers, ex-military commanders. The real receptiveness to working with the West now in Libya is by the revolutionaries, by younger activists, by Libya’s new politicians. Many of them arose during the revolution, or were exiled and came back to the country or they were people who had tried to push for reform within the system like [Interim Prime Minister under the National Transitional Council] Mahmud Jibril. Those are the new voices. I think that an important thing to underscore about the American assessment of Libya before and during the revolution is we just did not understand the country very well, and the players. We’d only had a diplomatic presence since 2008 and Gadhafi and his family were this outsized presence and it sort of obscured all the other complexities. The new players on the ground, many of them were completely unknown, and as happens in revolutions, they sprout up.
AMS: Since we are a media journal, I’m glad that you led with how you wanted to counter the narrative about Libya, but I’m curious, in your view has anyone been doing a good job of covering the country? Perhaps looking outside the mainstream narrative, and mainstream media, has anyone been doing a good job of covering portions of what’s happening or has it just been a blackout?
FW: There’s been the newswires, Reuters, AFP, they have local Libyan journalists who are present on the ground in various parts of Libya, Benghazi, Tripoli, they’ve been covering it consistently. You’ve had very good freelancers going in who are often taking very big risks. I think for all the other competing news, the New York Times and Washington Post have done a good job, and they’ve brought people into the country. There is some depth but you know often times because of media space and format, and I think especially in broadcast journalism, the complexities get flattened, get simplified. Part of that is a product of format and, with the exception of the wire services, they don’t have a sustained presence in the country.
AMS: I’m curious about your process of putting this together. How you decided to present the narrative. You were there both in a military capacity and as a civilian, so what was your approach in general and how did your experiences color how you went about this?
FW: The time before the revolution I was there in an official capacity and then I returned right after the revolution as a civilian doing research in a completely different capacity. That is how I have dealt with the country ever since, through these research trips. Throughout the country, I was able to make contacts from all the different factions. In some cases, it was observational, I was witnessing events as they happened, whether the battle for Sirte, or the elections. In other cases, I sought out to do a story, to do the research. In some cases, I had to reconstruct the events through eye witnesses who were there, so it was partially a matter of reconstructing narratives based on the participants, in some cases it was my own on the ground experiences and reporting. I do also want to emphasize, I tried to inject some history into this, beyond the Gadhafi period. In each region of Libya I wanted to acquaint the reader with the richness of the history, the culture, whether we’re talking about southern Libya, the city of Benghazi, which of course has been tainted in the [US] media’s perception, and has this long distinguished history before Gadhafi. I did also want to capture the sense of enchantment about this country that I first felt when I went there, the beauty, the history, and the potential of it.
AMS: There’s controversy and missing pieces around a lot of what has taken place, is there anything you wished you’d been able to dive into a little deeper or gotten more information on?
FW: What controversy are you referring to?
AMS: I was thinking particularly about the US embassy attack, and the US response to it.
FW: That episode, I really tried to get to the bottom of it through interviews with Libyans who were there that night, through the recently released court records of the trial of [rebel brigade leader] Ahmed Boukatala, which I think provide the clearest not partisan version of what happened that night because before that you had the Congressional Investigation Reports, many of which had a partisan agenda. I hope that my account of that night shows what actually took place. The administration’s response I didn’t get into. I think that’s been pretty well covered thought the State Department’s own internal investigation or the congressional reports that reach the same conclusion. The story that I wanted to tell about that night was what came after. We had that tragic event happen and then our coverage focused most on what was happening in Washington DC, ignoring what happened to the city of Benghazi. What did that attack do to Libyans in Benghazi? How did it affect them? And then what did it do to our policy in Libya, which I try to tell. It resulted in this constriction in our diplomacy and it was quite tragic, that the very people-to-people outreach that ambassador Chris Stevens was so passionate about just constricted, and Libya became this radioactive word.
You can read an excerpt of The Burning Shores here.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His writing on Libya has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the New York Times, and other publications. A U.S. military veteran with tours across the Middle East, he holds a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His first book, Sectarian Politics in the Gulf, was chosen as a "Best Book on the Middle East" by Foreign Affairs magazine. Born and raised in southern California, he now lives in Washington DC.