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  • Libya's Fragmentation: Structure and Process in Violent Conflict by Wolfram Lacher
  • Ronald Bruce St John (bio)
Libya's Fragmentation: Structure and Process in Violent Conflict, by Wolfram Lacher. London: I. B. Tauris, 2020. 285 pages. $29.95.

In early February 2011, the Libyan people rose up against the 42-year-rule of Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi in a bloody revolution that led to the death of the dictator and the end of his authoritarian regime. One of the few positive results of the February Revolution was that it encouraged a new generation of Western scholars focused on Libya. Wolfram Lacher, a senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), is one of the most prolific and accomplished members of this new generation. Since 2011, he has traveled widely in Libya, conducted hundreds of interviews in Arabic, and published a number of perceptive articles that collectively demonstrate a deep understanding of current events in this war-torn country. Among other things, his extensive fieldwork over the last eight years is noteworthy since Libya was largely closed to social scientists and journalists for much of the Qadhafi era.

In Libya's Fragmentation, a monograph based on his PhD research, Lacher argues "that developments in Libya, as well as in similarly complex and fragmented conflicts elsewhere, can only be understood through an analysis of the fragmentation and cohesion of social groups—of the social networks and communities in which political and military actors are embedded" (p. 4). To make his argument, he focuses on the structures, mechanisms, and processes in four localities, Bani Walid, Misrata, Tobruk, and the Western/Nafusa Mountains, during the 2011–19 period. While the author's case selection—three localities in western Libya, only one in the east, and none in the south—could be considered by some to be unduly restrictive and not representative, Lacher notes that accessibility and security considerations in Benghazi, Sabha, and Sirte, as well as in southern Libya, by early 2014 made fieldwork there precarious.

In a country generally lacking national military or political forces, "localism and fragmentation have been the most striking features of Libya's political and military landscape since 2011" (p. 59). Although political and territorial fragmentation is characteristic of failing states and common in civil wars, the author considers Libya by 2015 to be unique in that no national institutions had survived and no national or regional organizations had emerged. On the contrary, post-2011 Libya was marked by a high level of localism of military and political forces, generally anchored in tight-knit community relations. In addition to providing a theoretical framework for a fresh perspective on contemporary events in Libya, the author's emphasis on fragmentation and localism demystifies a number of key issues and events after 2011. [End Page 475]

Of particular note, Lacher highlights the full extent to which the United Nations, in its efforts to establish a unity government, found it difficult to identify key military and political forces. As a result, the nine-member executive body created by the Skhirat agreement, when combined with a requirement for unanimous decisions, "virtually guaranteed paralysis" (p. 48). "Its status as the internationally recognized authority was what kept the [Government of National Accord] alive even though the Skhirat agreement had, for all intents and purposes, failed" (p. 49). To cite another example, the common explanation that the localism of revolutionary forces during the 2011 revolution was largely or wholly the product of the marginalization during the Qadhafi era of certain areas, towns, or regions does not hold up under a closer examination of patterns of loyalism and rebellion in 2011. Similarly, the structure and influence of Libyan tribes, often considered by many to be unified, collective actors, fails to square with "the sudden appearance of cohesive local communities as leading forces in the revolution" (p. 73). The importance and continuity of the tribal phenomenon in Libya clearly justifies the use of the term; however, the changes tribes and tribalism underwent before and after 2011 clearly require further analysis. In Tobruk and elsewhere in eastern Libya, tribal identity mattered and was used by local politicians as a resource, but it was local...


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