Rory O’Keeffe deserves both thanks and congratulations for providing an account of the so-called Arab Spring in Libya and Tunisia that is readable as well as being thorough and sensitive.
Broadly, the book is in two main sections, firstly his own direct experience, over 5 or 6 months in late 2011 and early 2012, of the situation created by the Libyan uprising against Gaddafi; then a more reflective and analytic commentary on the picture as it presented itself in 2014. The actual title of the book seems to me a rather odd choice. It refers to a third theme altogether, the fate of would-be immigrants to Europe drowned in one of the all-too-familiar tragedies after the places in the boat had been allocated by the toss of a coin.
The earlier section, giving us the author’s own experiences and impressions of a refugee camp in Tunisia (later burned down by its neighbours) followed by his trip along the Libyan coast with its devastated towns, warring factions and ruined lives traces, via interviews, the story of how Libya in Gaddafi’s day had actually been a haven for refugees from further south. The material is organised very well, starting with a detailed but clear account of the recent history of Chad that makes it very easy to appreciate just why Chad’s inhabitants might have wanted to get out. I also like the way O’Keeffe uses the second person ‘you’ to narrate his own thoughts and experiences, as if almost standing outside himself. As one reads on a perception that is frequently repeated is the unfavourable mention that the author gives to the work of NATO. He points to destruction of schools and hospitals and it is not hard to read a sense of disgust into his reports of NATO’s self-justifications. In particular he makes a point of NATO’s refusal to observe the no-fly zone, and this is a theme picked up in his later perspective from 2014.
Rory O’Keeffe’s historical analysis in the latter part of the book both benefits, but also slightly suffers, from being so close to the events it is discussing. This is history still happening in Libya, although the current focus has shifted to Syria. The main picture is consistent with the news reporting I have become accustomed to, the picture of two powerless rival governments owing any legitimacy they might be thought to have to a supreme court that may well be unconstitutional itself. The real power in cases like this can be expected to belong with various militias (‘khetibas’), while the general populace have to get by without either a functioning national army or even a police force. There is a villain of the piece (other than NATO) in this author’s view, and he is General Khalifa Haftar, loftily characterised as the worst military leader Libya has known. On this view Haftar ensured ongoing chaos where there might have been a glimmer of hope for the re-establishment of order. Well, this is early days and obviously there are going to be different viewpoints as other historians produce their own insights, but what I appreciate here is being given a coherent and consistent picture, making at least some kind of sense of the overall shambles. One topic that I hope either O’Keeffe or someone else will try to make sense of is none other than Gaddafi himself. There is no attempt to pretend that he was not a murderous and arbitrary dictator. There is no attempt to reconcile the doctrines of his Green Book with what he did in practice. However Mr Reagan called him a ‘mad dog’ for his unpredictable incursions into other countries. One has only to recall not just the Iran Contras but various African ventures of the 40th President’s own to suspect that he regarded mad canine activity as being his job.
At one point Rory O’Keeffe yields to a familiar writer’s urge to quote some poetry, and he picks (perhaps too predictably) Shelley’s Ozymandias. This is about the Sahara certainly, but otherwise its depiction of a long-lost empire buried under the eternal sands is not very apposite in my own view, but it tempts me to adapt a couple of lines from Wilde to convey my feeling that this book (laudably to a great extent) tries to cram a bit too much into one volume. Try
And he who tells more tales than one
More books than one should write.
I certainly hope that after doing so much to educate us among the general public about a situation that is still with us and is likely to give us ongoing problems Rory O’Keeffe will develop and expand his insights. Oddly, I think that the small vignette of the doomed immigrant boat is one thing that would be better removed, even if it means finding a new title for a reprint. Such stories are the daily fare of our news bulletins, and sadly I think compassion-fatigue may be setting in: this book is otherwise about expanding our understanding, and it would be best sticking to that aim. If the author is looking for a new heading he could do worse that use one from his own page 128 that I have lifted for the caption to this review ‘This, it seems, is freedom.’