A Libya Primer: Libya’s History

Source: NPR, 2-21-11

The unrest in Libya has thrust the major oil supplier into the global spotlight. Dirk Vendewalle, a professor at Dartmouth College and author of A History of Modern Libya, discusses the developments.


Some background on Libya now. From Dirk Vandewalle, he’s a professor of government at Dartmouth, and he’s the author of “A History of Modern Libya.” Welcome to the program.

Professor DIRK VANDEWALLE (Government, Dartmouth College): Thank you.

SIEGEL: And, first, one thing we identify Libya with is, of course, oil. How important are Libyan oil exports?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Well, Libya exports slightly over two million barrels a day. And even though that is not one of the top producers in the world, it is an important overall producer. But it’s perhaps more important in part because the European countries in particular are quite dependent on Libyan oil. Libyan oil is also very high quality. So it’s eagerly sought after. So, not the major producer, but certainly an important one.

SIEGEL: And for the six-and-a-half million or so Libyans, how important are those oil exports?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Absolutely crucial because 95 percent of all government revenues comes from oil.

SIEGEL: Now, in all of the recent uprisings in Arab countries, we always hear about the role of the army and of the security forces. In Libya, how do those institutions play out in Libyan national life?

Prof. VANDEWALLE: Well, they’re actually quite different from neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. When Gadhafi came to power in 1969, he was particularly eager not to kind of recreate a military that would at any point perhaps form an opposition to him. And so, Libya has never really had a professional army the way we have seen them in Egypt and in Tunisia.

As a result, what has emerged in Libya are these very powerful security organizations that really became the watchdog of the regime. And of course what we’ve seen, since they are both the first and the last defense of the regime, they tend to be very vicious because if they lose the battle with the population, for example, then, in a sense, they may be the ones put against a wall and shot. And, of course, the other part of this is that if the security organizations fold, there is really no more defense for the regime in Tripoli….READ MORE

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