Review By Dexter Filkins
In 2011, a vast uprising of ordinary people across the Arab world appeared initially as a moment of exhilaration — the Arab Spring, it was called — but very soon, nearly everywhere, it collapsed into mayhem.
From the Maghreb to the Persian Gulf, it turned out that the terrible men who ruled the countries of the Arab world had destroyed almost everything that might hold their societies together without them.
When the dictators lost their grips, countries across the region imploded, loosing savagery and suffering that still burns on.
The principal exemplar of this phenomenon is Syria, a scene of murder and despair unrivaled in our time. But it is not the only such place; perhaps the very scale of Syria’s disaster has hindered a fuller appreciation of just how desperate other cases are.
One of these is Libya, a huge country with a small population made up mostly of desert that skirts North Africa’s Mediterranean coast.
Seven years after Libya’s dictator left the scene, the country writhes in a state of civil war, the consequences of its violence reaching far beyond its shores, and yet until now few detailed accounts have captured how it happened.
In “The Burning Shores,” the American scholar Frederic Wehrey traces Libya’s troubles from the beginning of the revolution to its current upheavals, marking the critical moments along the way.
The result is uneven and sometimes a little hard to follow; even so, Wehrey’s version should be read and appreciated as the essential text on the country’s disintegration.
In tracing Libya’s struggles, Wehrey (a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace) has repeatedly ventured to a place largely ignored by the Western press, often considered too dangerous.
“The Burning Shores” is not a happy tale; while accounts of a country’s descent — in Iraq or in Syria, say — might identify missed opportunities, there seem to have been remarkably few in this case. Libya’s state and society had been gutted long before.
“The Burning Shores” begins with the dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, surely one of the most flamboyantly eccentric rulers ever to commandeer a country.
The son of a nomad, Qaddafi was born in a tent and often lived in one, liked to don dramatic military uniforms or traditional robes, and gave every sign of being mentally unhinged. But he was not stupid.
Qaddafi seized power in 1969 as a young colonel, then held it by stifling dissent, playing Libya’s tribes against one another and ruining whatever independent institutions once existed.
Taking a page from Mao, Qaddafi gathered his own (mostly unremarkable) aphorisms into a volume dubbed “The Green Book.” He even sponsored terrorism.
Qaddafi’s agents planned and executed the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, which exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, killing 270 people.
In 1986, after Qaddafi triggered an attack on a disco in Berlin, American jets bombed a tent where he was believed to be staying and killed, among others, a baby girl, purportedly his daughter.
Qaddafi’s 42-year reign was enabled by oil revenue and by the Western companies that acquiesced to him when the country was not under U.N. sanctions; with a population of just six million, Libya holds the world’s ninth largest reserves of oil.
The uprising finally came in 2011, beginning in the city of Benghazi, when ordinary Libyans took to the streets to protest the arrest of a local human rights lawyer, Fethi Tarbel.
As the anger spread, “the colonel,” as he liked to call himself, vowed to crush the protesters with overwhelming force.
At the crucial moment, the United States, led by France and the United Kingdom, intervened, vowing to stop what appeared to be an imminent humanitarian catastrophe.
The West, deploying mostly air power, forestalled a massacre and, crucially, decided to keep going until they drove Qaddafi from power.
(The colonel was captured outside the capital hiding in a drain pipe; his captors sodomized him with a stick and executed him.)
With Qaddafi gone, the West stood back as anarchy engulfed the country. Initially, Wehrey notes, Western analysts did not believe Libya — almost entirely Sunni Muslim — to be as fractious as the multiethnic communities of Syria or Iraq.
But the country splintered nonetheless: east from west, Islamists from secular, Islamist from Islamist.
Add to that foreign intervention — the Qataris arming the Islamists; the Emiratis, Egyptians and Russians arming the more secular-minded groups — and the country flew apart.
Though there was never any desire in any Western capital to intervene on the ground in Libya, Wehrey notes, the Libyans didn’t want that anyway: In more ways than one, Libya shows how humanitarian intervention can go completely awry.
If there was one crucial mistake that fed the chaos, it was the decision by the transitional government, just after Qaddafi’s overthrow, to pay the various militias who had helped make the revolution.
In this way, the rationale went, the gunmen could be controlled — but the result was that the militias multiplied and started fighting one another, and no one could control them at all.
“Like the young magician in ‘The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,’” Wehrey writes, “the Libyan government was now beholden to an apparition of its own conjuring.”
Reporting in Libya is hard work. Wehrey crisscrossed the country, flew back and forth along the coast, and sat with warlords and Islamists of uncertain intentions.
Most of his encounters don’t appear to have lasted long enough to forge a deeper connection. Perhaps this came with the chaotic turf.
But the only characters who make a lasting impression in the book are a liberal-minded human rights lawyer named Salwa Bugaighis, who had high hopes for the country but was killed by Islamist militiamen shortly after the revolution, and Chris Stevens, the American ambassador who died in an attack on the embassy in Benghazi in 2012.
The last days of Stevens, a humane and fearless diplomat, are vividly recounted.
Stevens was determined to use his leverage as an American representative to hold Libya together, and he waded straight into the chaos.
He died of smoke inhalation when Ansar al-Sharia, the Islamist militia waging the attack, set the embassy on fire.
Stevens serves as a symbol for the West’s efforts to save Libya from itself; after his death, repeated attempts by the United States and the United Nations to forge a political settlement fell apart.
The attitude, according to Derek Chollet, a senior American official quoted in Wehrey’s book, was “The hell with it.”
The collapse of the Libyan state left a vacuum on the shores of the Mediterranean less than 300 miles from Italian territory.
With the weakest of central governments, Libya became a gateway to Europe for Africa’s impoverished.
Wehrey calls Libya “Europe’s African shore,” and indeed it is. Criminal gangs who control the coastline take the desperate legions who flock there, charge them exorbitant amounts of money and send them off on boats often barely seaworthy to make the treacherous passage. (Others are raped and killed on their journeys to Libya, or held in horrific prisons after they arrive.)
In 2017, more than 150,000 migrants, many of them embarking from Libya, made their way across the Mediterranean to Europe, with more than 2,000 drowning en route. It’s a measure of how desperate life can be in parts of Africa and the Middle East that so many are willing to take the chance.
The populist backlash consuming Europe can be seen in many ways as a reaction to the collapse of the Libyan state and the war in Syria, which have unleashed a massive movement of people.
To stave off the human tide, Europe has embarked on extreme measures: patrolling the Libyan coast to turn ships around, underwriting a Libyan coast guard for a government that hardly exists, paying militias — some of which are the chief human traffickers — to keep the migrants away.
In the past, the travails of a country like Libya — foreign, far away, of little consequence — might be safely ignored by the rest of the world. Not anymore. For as far as we can see into the future, Libya’s chaos will be landing right on the West’s doorstep.
Top Photo: A burned-out vehicle litters the road connecting the town of Bin Jawwad to the oil refinery of Ras Lanuf.
Dexter Filkins is a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of “The Forever War.”