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Uncertain future for Libya as new books track the country's past

Two recent books tell the story of the uprising that toppled Muammar Qadhafi. But the new country’s future is still up for grabs

Libyans voted for new rulers on 7 July, less than a year since the tyrant who ruled their country for more than four decades was executed near a sewage drain close to his birthplace of Sirte.

On paper, the election should kick-start a process that will turn Libya into a constitutional democracy at break-neck speed. Those elected this month will become members of a new congress charged with finding a prime minister within a month and drafting a constitution within four. Then new elections for a parliament will take place sometime next year.

By 2013, the one-man show of Qadhafi’s Great Socialist Libyan People’s Jamahiriya, the verbose and ridiculous name he bestowed on his country, should be but a terrifying memory.

By then, Libya should be on a road to prosperity. The recovery in oil output, its main industry, has been swift. Production of Libya’s highly prized light, sweet crude oil is now just shy of pre-war levels of 1.6 million barrels a day (b/d). By the end of the year it may be higher, say officials in the country.

Despite damage to the country’s downstream sector, the Zawiya, Brega and Sarir refineries are all back to full capacity. Only Ras Lanuf, which exports products, is still under repair. For a country that was split in two by war just 11 months ago, it has been an astonishing recovery.

Big plans in the energy sector are on the table, too. Abdurahman Benyezza, Libya’s oil minister, last month outlined a plan under which the country would reach oil-output capacity of 2.2m b/d and gas production of 37 billion cubic metres a year within five years.

New upstream work will yield another 10bn barrels of oil reserves, he predicted (taking Libya’s total to around 57bn), as enhanced recovery and greenfield projects take hold. Refining and petrochemicals are all to expand as part of the campaign, too. Libya, Benyezza suggested at an Opec meeting in Vienna in June, is open for business.

All of that will need billions of dollars of investment. But, as two recent books* on the new Libya show, predicting the country’s future will be difficult. The colonel left a devastated country, bereft of political institutions, let alone experienced politicians; and one where trust in leaders will, thanks to his wanton ways, prove extremely difficult to engineer.

Despite the success of Libya’s oil industry, which showed remarkable nous as it got back to business after the war, murky politics will remain the biggest worry for foreigners hoping to take Benyezza up on his invitation. Such are the shifting sands, though, no one even knows whether he, or his plans, will remain in place as Libya’s new leaders emerge.

And the country has a lot of recovering to do. “Qadhafi treated Libya like a farm,” one fighter told Petroleum Economist in Tripoli during the war. “We were his animals.”

Lindsey Hilsum’s book gives a good account of how and why the simmering rage boiled over last year, as civilian protests turned into civil war. Her history of the Qadhafi era captures some of its cruelty and neglect. Cyrenaica, in the east, where the rebellion was to start, decayed under Libya’s self-styled Guide, even as he wasted the country’s oil wealth on African adventurism and support for “anti-imperialist” terrorists.

Understanding the rebellion as the revolt of disaffected, disenfranchised citizens against a murderous dictator and his venal family isn’t, however, the whole story. Alison Pargeter’s book shows that throughout Qadhafi’s rule the real opposition came chiefly from Islamists, not least those who were scandalised by the colonel’s near-blasphemous pronunciations about Islam. Pargeter doesn’t say it, but the implication will be uncomfortable for the rebels’ Western supporters: Islam may play a bigger role in Libya’s future than ideas about democracy.

That will trouble investors. While many international oil companies have been waiting in the wings, the influence of the Gulf is growing in Libya. Qadhafi antagonised most other Arab rulers, even plotting to assassinate some of them.

One of the colonel’s targets, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, once looked across a table at him, wagging his finger: “The lie is before you and the grave is in front of you!” It took two decades for the prophecy to come true.

If funding the revolution was revenge for Qadhafi’s support of Tehran in the Iran-Iraq War or other slights against the Arab world, it now gives the Gulf countries, especially Qatar, a big role in Libya’s future, especially as well-financed Islamists press for the country’s high office.

Nato’s decisive role in the military conflict last year – designed, said conspiracy theorists, to ensure Western oil firms had first dibs on new contracts – hasn’t, by contrast, given the UK or France much of a leading role. Indeed, Abdelhakim Belhadj, an Islamist leader credited with the fall of Tripoli in August last year, could end up a leader of the new, free Libya. At the very least, his power base is great. Yet he is also suing the British government for rendering him into one of Qadhafi’s prisons during the so-called War on Terror.

As the dust settles on Qadhafi’s Libya, it is also clear just how badly Western governments blundered in the latter years of his reign. As Hilsum shows, arms sales were a priority, especially for France, which also sold email surveillance software to Qadhafi’s regime: lethal kit for the regime once the uprising began.

Hilsum’s book recounts the awkward friendliness to the tyrant of the British government, eager to advance the interests of BP and Shell in Libya’s upstream, while dealing at the same time with the release of the Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Megrahi.

On behalf of BP, Sir Mark Allen, the British spy who helped rehabilitate Qadhafi, lobbied the UK’s justice minister for the prisoner’s release. Tony Blair’s warmth towards the dictator, part of UK government efforts to schmooze its way to oil and weapons contracts, is still vivid in the minds of many Libyans.

So, too, is the happy welcome offered to Saif al-Islam, Qadhafi’s son, who with the help of vast donations and polished English persuaded many in the West that he would be Libya’s future benevolent leader. If he ever sees Europe again, it will be from the dock in The Hague.

Both of these books offer good background on Qadhafi’s rise and the nature of his regime. They go some way to explaining why his departure leaves such a political void. Already, though, the technocratic diaspora Libyans who formed the National Transitional Council and did much to reassure foreign governments to back the revolution are losing influence. Neither Pargeter nor Hilsum have much to say about what will come next: that chapter has yet to be written. Investors will need much patience as they wait to see if and when Libya is a safe place for their money.

* Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution. Lindsey Hilsum, Faber and Faber: London, 2012; Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi. Alison Pargeter, Yale University Press: New Haven, CT, 2012.

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