Libya Contemporary: Interdisciplinary Libyan Studies is a project by the German ethnographer Thomas Hüsken and the Libyan political scientist Amal Obeidi. With this project, we aim to encourage and promote interdisciplinary academic research on contemporary Libya.
In the words of Dirk Vandewalle (2006), “the history of Libya in the twentieth century represents, even by Middle Eastern standards, an extraordinary odyssey from Ottoman backwater to Italian colony; from conservative monarchy to revolutionary regime”). The developments after the Arab Spring in Libya in 2011 – the country’s unfortunate descent into civil war, and the ongoing political conflict – are yet another dramatic chapter in this odyssey.
There is a wealth of studies on Libya’s history, politics, economy, and culture. However, the asymmetrical relationship between Libyan and Western academic production on Libya in which the former has been and continues to be underrated or overlooked (particularly at the Western international level), is an ongoing problem. Seminal publications on politics in Libya have been and are still predominantly presented by Western scholars like Evans-Pritchard ( 1973), Peters (1990), Davis (1987), Vandewalle (2006, 2008), Mattes (2008), Hüsken (2019), and Lacher (2020). Only a few Libyan academics, such as Ali Abdullatif Ahmida (1994, 2006, 2020), Mansour El Kikhia (1997), Amal Obeidi (2001, 2008), and Youssef Sawani (2017), have gained attention in Western academia.
On the other hand, there is a large number of national research centres in Libya itself, such as the Centre for Research and Consultation, which was established at the University of Benghazi in 1973, the Libyan Studies Centre, which opened in Tripoli in 1978, and other research centres set up by the National Institute for Scientific Research. These centres have conducted extensive and detailed research, from studies on colonial history and anti-colonial resistance to all aspects of politics, economy, and culture in Libya. Unfortunately, the exchange and cooperation between these institutions and international researchers was severely hampered by the isolation policy of Qadhafi’s regime (1969–2011), as well as the sanctions imposed on Libya by the United States in the 1980s and later by the United Nations Security Council in 19921. In addition, the developments in Libya since 2011 have certainly not helped to improve these centres or increase their international visibility. Instead, international think tanks located in the global North are dominating the reporting on Libya. In academia, specific programmes for Libyan Studies are currently almost non-existent, and thus the study of Libya largely takes place within Middle Eastern Studies programmes.2 Libya Contemporary joins the postcolonial critique of the hegemony of Western academic production about the global south in general, and Libya in particular. We invite Libyans and non-Libyans to an open and equal academic exchange. Thus, the project will contribute to what can be termed the “decolonization of Libyan studies.”
Since 2011, Libya has witnessed the often violent competition between a number of different political models and practices (state-like, tribal, Islamic, jihadist, federalist, and separatist). Thus, Libya has been taken as a blueprint for state collapse, conflict, and crisis. Instead of focusing on deficiencies, Libya Contemporary will assess concrete practices, ideas, and world views in Libya from an empirically grounded, non-normative and genealogical perspective. As a starting point for our research, we are particularly interested in Politics, Identity, and Justice, with Gender as a crosscutting theme. However, we also encourage research that reaches beyond these topics.
Research in times of contestation and transition is challenging. This is particular true for a team consisting of a German and a Libyan researcher. While a German ethnographer may keep or claim a certain academic distance (in the field and afterwards) from politics, a Libyan political scientist is automatically involved and is held accountable in ongoing political debates. It is therefore important to emphasize that our research does not include any political positioning with regard to ongoing debates and disputes in Libya.
1) An exception to this policy were programmes for Libyan graduate students in the United Kingdom, France, the United States, and a number of Eastern European countries.
2) An exception is the Society for Libyan Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Although the Society for Libyan Studies focuses primarily on history, anthropology, and archeology, it nevertheless supported many Western scholars in conducting their research in Libya during the 1970s and 1980s.
Ahmida, Ali Abdullatif. 1994. The Making of Modern Libya: State Formation, Colonization, and Resistance, 1830–1932. SUNY Series in the Social and Economic History of the Middle East. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
________. 2006. “When the Subaltern Speak: Memory of Genocide in Colonial Libya 1929 to 1933.” Italian Studies 61 (2): 175–190.
________. 2020. Genocide in Libya: Shar, a Hidden Colonial History. London: Routledge.
Davis, John. 1987. Libyan Politics: Tribe and Revolution. London: I.B. Tauris.
Evans-Pritchard, Edward E. (1949) 1973. The Sanusi of Cyrenaica. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hüsken, Thomas. 2019. Tribal Politics in the Borderland of Egypt and Libya. Palgrave Series in African Borderlands Studies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
El Kikhia, Mansour O. 1997. Libya’s Qaddafi: The Politics of Contradiction. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.
Lacher, Wolfram. 2020. Libya’s Fragmentation: Structure and Process in Violent Conflict. London, New York: IB Tauris.
Mattes, Hans Peter. 2008. “Formal and Informal Authority in Libya since 1969.” In Libya since 1969. Qadhafi’s Revolution Revisited, edited by Dirk Vandewalle, 55–81. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Obeidi, Amal. 2001. Political Culture in Libya. Richmond, Surrey, UK: Curzon Press.
----------. 2008. “Political Elites in Libya since 1969.” In Libya since 1969: Qadhafi’s Revolution Revisited, edited by Dirk Vandewalle, 105–26. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Peters, Emrys L. 1990. The Bedouin of Cyrenaica: Studies in Personal and Corporate Power. Edited by J. Goody and E. Marx. Cambridge Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology, no. 72. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sawani, Youssef Mohammad. 2017. “Security Sector Reform, Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration of Militias: the Challenges for State Building in Libya.” Contemporary Arab Affairs 10 (2): 171–186.
St. John, Ronald Bruce. 2008. “The Libyan Economy in Transition: Opportunities and Challenges.” In Libya since 1969. Qadhafi’s Revolution Revisited, edited by Dirk Vandewalle, 127–151. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Vandewalle, Dirk. 2006. A History of Modern Libya. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
________, ed. 2008. Libya since 1969. Qadhafi’s Revolution Revisited. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.