Matteo Capasso, Everyday Politics in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (Syracuse University Press, 2023).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Matteo Capasso (MC): When approaching the academic literature on the politics of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, there has been a constant attempt to reduce anything Libyan to Mu’ammar Qaddafi. The richness of Libya’s social, economic, political dynamics is obliterated, and presented as the whims of a mad ruler. The overemphasis on the figure of one man comes together with the idea of statelessness and tribalism. This suggests that, while Libya has never had functioning institutions, the government only relied on an intricate and manipulative network of tribal allegiances. Unfortunately, these academic works have not only flattened out Libyan history and politics, but they also ended up replicating the interests of US policymakers. As you can imagine, when the events of 2011 unfolded, and Libya descended into complete destruction, mainstream academic narratives and think tanks did not hesitate to uncritically reproduce these ideas. Therefore, as I was able to see the continuity of these discourses pre and post 2011, this book became an attempt to provide a more elaborate understanding of how Libya reached 2011. The oral histories of Libyans are the starting point of this alternative reading, as they allowed me to enter the space of the everyday. However, as the analysis of these personal narratives unfolded, it became all too clear that one cannot disassociate the everyday from wider regional and international political and economic dynamics.

Finally, I need to add a few worlds on the peer-review history of this book, which is itself indicative of the difficulties that a young early career scholar finds in providing a counter-narrative to predominant scholarship. It took me several years to get this book out because, when I initially sent the book to a major UK-based publisher, the manuscript was rejected. As you all know, rejection is normal in academia because any book or article can present errors or methodological unclarity, or lack consistency or coherence in the argument. I have been working for a peer-review journal in area studies for years now, and I am aware that rejections are indeed the norm. However, when a reviewer can so confidently reject a book on political grounds, namely my criticism of the NATO-led regime change operation that took place in 2011… well, this was a remarkable moment. These decisions have serious material, professional, and emotional implications, but I am glad that Syracuse University Press supported the critical spirit of this project (not without revisions).

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MC: The book traces the turbulent political changes that the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya underwent in its last two decades. It does so through the eyes and narratives of Libyans, connecting these to geopolitical/economic shifts. In this sense, it is important to point out that, for all those who equate a book on the everyday to a story about the agency and resistance of the people under dictatorship, the book is going to be a huge disappointment. Let me explain you why.

For instance, the second chapter of the book is dedicated to the issues of “Violence, Fear and Surveillance.” Normally, this would make you think that this is the umpteenth discussion of the authoritarian character of Qaddafi’s Libya, as most of the academic literature already does. The book instead shows how the everyday political anatomy of violence and fear that heightened in Libya during the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s cannot be disentangled from the long history of Western-led foreign intervention in the country, including sanctions, funding of opposition groups, and direct bombings. As international sanctions and military bombings curbed the regime’s ambitions to counter Western colonialism/imperialism, violence internally impeded the emergence of relations of trust, legitimacy, and solidarity that could nourish Libyan society, replaced instead by increasing fear and surveillance. I trace these dynamics from the geopolitical to the quotidian level, demonstrating how all these various levels of analysis must be treaded carefully if we are to understand political change in the region, as anywhere else.

Similarly, the fourth chapter of the book traces how everyday desires and fantasies for the future of Libya cannot be reduced to forms of direct resistance against the government. For instance, I trace the rise of consumerist desires, as well as the fantasy of turning Libya into the Dubai of North Africa. The book shows that these fantasies are a reminder of the rise of the global to the surface of the mundane, specifically the triumph of global capitalism. These fantasies were symptomatic of the gradual abandonment of another vision for the future that initially had sought to build an alternative model of development, largely reflecting the sociopolitical context then prevailing in the wider 1970s African and Asian postcolonial resistance. However, this political model not only showed its internal limitations, but also collapsed under the constant threat of war and sanctions by Western geopolitical forces. Consequently, these more progressive policies that had been pursued were abandoned, metamorphosing into more repressive policies and rising socioeconomic inequalities for the Libyan people. In other words, capitalist modernity was being desired, but the contribution of these same Western-led forces to the defeat of the Jamahiriya was being ignored.

And this is precisely how the book analyzes the events of 2011. The NATO-led regime change operation was, for instance, even welcomed by some Libyans yet ignored completely the long history of self-interest and destruction that the West had brought upon the country. At the same time, the government—while warning the population that a NATO-led intervention meant the loss of national sovereignty—had gradually failed to secure its internal legitimacy. Considering the unique speed that characterized the decision of Western states to bomb Libya, these contradictions played out in favor of the destruction of the country, and we can now see the results. 

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

MC: This is my first book and so it is the stepping stone of my academic trajectory. When I look at this book, I do not see only an academic monograph, but I can trace and understand my gradual intellectual development. For these reasons, I am so indebted to all the Libyans I met who had the patience and willingness to sit with me and discuss their stories and anecdotes.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MC: Primarily, I hope that the book will be read by all those who are interested in understanding the politics of Libya and the wider region beyond the usual Orientalist tropes. Also, the book interacts with questions linked to political economy, history, and political theory, so I hope it is going to appeal academics, graduate students, and undergraduate students interested in these fields.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

MC: I am currently working on two projects, the seeds of which are already visible in the conclusion of the book. In fact, as I was completing the research for Everyday Politics in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, one question kept coming back to my mind: how can my work help explain why we must avoid another NATO-led intervention? Despite all the contradictions that I was trying to describe in the book, the fact that an entire coalition of Western countries quickly decided to bomb Libya is a fact that demoralized me a lot. And this question of political solidarity then led me to reassess the focus of my research, which is now oriented to examining the reasons and impacts of Western-led policies over countries of the Global South, including Libya.

As a result, the focus has turned to international political economy and it comes without saying that this new direction of research is bringing me to explore questions related to financial capitalism, militarism and, more widely, the relevance of the theoretical notion of imperialism. In such a context, I am also refining my knowledge of Libya by exploring a dimension that was missing in this book, namely the archives. As the NATO-led operation destroyed a lot of these archives, I am trying to gather various sources (research pamphlets, newspapers, and so on) from the past to reconstruct in more detail the nature of the confrontation that the Libyan revolution, like Venezuela’s today, has had with the US-led imperialism since 1969.

This new research has begun to produce some results: a Special Issue, “On Imperialism in the Middle East,” (guest-edited with Ali Kadri) is coming out on Middle East Critique; I have organized a conference on the “Imperialist Question in the 21st Century” at Columbia University, where I am affiliated; and I am part of the political initiative against the impact of coercive economic measures, the “International People’s Tribunal on US Imperialism,” where we had several hearings so far, including one on Libya.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction)

1. Mapping the Everyday

We came, we saw, he died.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, 2011

After the brutal capture and killing of Muammar Qaddafi in October 2011, the US secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, used these words to comment on the alleged success of the NATO-led military operation in support of the Libyan protests, also known as the 17 February Revolution. The events began eight months earlier, when Libyans marched into the streets to protest against the regime, emulating the actions that had characterized the course of events in its neighboring countries—Tunisia and Egypt—since late 2010. In this case, people took to the streets of Benghazi to protest the arrest of Fathi Terbil, the lawyer representing the families of the disappeared victims of the infamous state-led killings in the Abu Salim prison in 1996. While the protesters’ demands included the lawyer’s release as well as justice and transparency regarding the unknown fates of their loved ones, their protests also offered an opportunity to voice a more widespread societal discontent around worsening economic conditions and political freedom. However, they soon escalated into open and violent confrontation. Some protesters torched police stations and besieged the city’s airport in Benghazi as well as army barracks, where they obtained weapons. In Bayda and the port town of Tobruk, they forced out those who were considered regime loyalists, while in Zintan they set fire to a police station and the premises of security forces. On February 15, 2011, the rebels captured, tortured, and killed a Black lieutenant, Hisham al-Shoushan, accused of being a mercenary soldier working for the regime. Hanged by his feet and whiplashed by protesters in public, al-Shoushan’s fabricated accusations were also widely recirculated by the Qatari-based television channel Al-Jazeera.

The regime, for their part, sought to contain the unrest by various means, including mass shootings, arrests, and peaceful calls to the protesters to return to their homes. More importantly, at the international level, in less than ten days since the start of the protests, major Western governments such as the United States, the UK, and France had already started to call upon Qaddafi, asking him to step down “now, without further violence or delay”. Breaking any diplomatic relations with the Libyan regime, on February 27, 2011, they recognized the nascent National Transitional Council (NTC), which was formed to act as the executive and political face of the rebels, taking up administrative roles, distributing weapons, and paying salaries.

Therefore, as the regime seemed to have regained control of the areas held by rebels, reaching the outskirts of the city of Benghazi, a moral consensus grew among many Western countries regarding the necessity to contain Qaddafi’s “killing of his own people” and avoid an impending genocide. On March 13, 2011, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) passed Resolution 1973, calling for an immediate ceasefire, establishing a no-fly zone over Libya, and authorizing the use of “all necessary measures” to protect civilian-held areas. A few days later, an international coalition of eighteen countries initiated the military operation Odyssey Dawn, initially lead by US African Command (AFRICOM) and then by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), in support of the rebels. The UN-authorized humanitarian intervention was deemed necessary to support a popular uprising that aimed to overthrow a ruler who had governed Libya in an authoritarian, if not a dictatorial, fashion for more than forty years. By protecting the lives of the Libyan people, the humanitarian intervention paved the way for a democratic government, and, in fact, elections took place in 2012. Nonetheless, the country descended into further destruction and internecine violence. Those armed groups—also known as militias—that had contributed to the fall of the regime did not acknowledge the results of the elections and began fighting against each other. To this day, while alliances and actors have shifted several times, the civil war and its related violence has not ended. Libya is a failed state.

At such a critical juncture for the past, present, and future of Libya, post-2011 fragmentation, destruction, and violence are interpreted as stemming from a domestic and traditional weakness of Libya and its people. Libya’s long rejection of modern state structures, which, at its best, Qaddafi’s rule pursued, now poses a major challenge for the country. An oversimplified version of this argument, which is often used to make the country legible to nonexperts, stresses Libya’s unchanging nature. As Italian journalist and renowned expert on Libya Michela Mercuri writes, “Contemporary Libya is a place where everything moves, but nothing changes, a country that seems to be stubbornly fighting against itself.” From the Ottoman times to the present, Libya has been traditionally represented as a society without a state. One hundred and fifty years of the country’s political history are encapsulated as the result of an historical battle between the center and the periphery. Beginning with the Ottomans and extending to the Qaddafi regime and afterward, in Libya peripheral forces have always rejected an institutionalized central power. This proves not only that Libya’s twentieth-century history has differed from other despotic Arab regimes but also that its trajectory brought about the creation of an accidental state. In other words, comprehending Libya’s destruction now requires us to brush up on its history of statelessness and the return of tribal structures and their related dynamics.

This book aims to reconstruct the intricate political dynamics in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya leading up to 2011. Drawing directly from the voices and lives of Libyans, it weaves the threads linking the sphere of the quotidian to the regional and international. The book leads up to a unique and timely analysis of the 2011 events that witnessed the fall of the regime, demonstrating how a popular movement for freedom against an increasingly repressive regime turned into a melodrama of violence and war. In doing so, it demonstrates how those academic frames used to interpret the country’s events in 2011 have contributed to obscuring the interdependence between everyday local and global dynamics, including constant Western politico-military interference in the country and the consolidation of capitalist modernity worldwide.

The term “statelessness” derives from the anthropological work of John Davis, who adopted the concept to describe the development of modern Libya based on two main factors. First, he linked statelessness to the historical incapacity of the colonial authorities to establish hegemonic institutions in the eyes of the colonized population. Second, the presence of a tribal structure in Libyan society allowed Qaddafi to reject conventional notions of the state—that is, buying off people’s legitimacy through the use of hydrocarbon revenues. The history of the Libyan polity, in other words, had not “encrusted the state with respectability, nor given it any cloak of inevitability”. The launch of the al-Fātiḥ Revolution in 1969 and the subsequent establishment of the Jamahiriya in 1977 dovetailed with a more general path that had characterized Libya’s historical development since the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the early part of the twentieth century—in other words, the absence of a modern institutional framework, or, more simply, statelessness. In such a scenario, where statelessness represented both an historical anomaly and the continuity of Libya’s rulers, who were unwilling to establish a modern state, the regime of Qaddafi only reaffirmed this understanding of the country’s history, adding another shard to the mosaic of statelessness.

To further strengthen this argument, statelessness is often associated with the authoritarian, quixotic, idiosyncratic, or bizarre ideas of Qaddafi. The absence of state institutions in Libya come hand in hand with a focus on his eccentric and authoritarian theoretical experimentations. In such a scenario, a stateless Libya that rejects the modern structures of the state and instead is governed by an irrational man also became a menace to the stability of the international order. There is, in fact, another and important concept that scholars have attached to the study of the Jamahiriya, this time to describe its status in the international arena: that of the rogue state, or, in other variations, the outlaw state; pariah state; irrational state; quasi-state; or terrorist state. Libya—or, to be more precise, Qaddafi’s Libya—was considered a state that nurtured and supported international terrorism, relentlessly pursuing the creation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), ultimately threatening the world’s peace and stability.