The Sahara Is Not a Desert: Re-Mapping Libya, Unravelling the State

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Article published in The Funambulist 18 (July-August 2018) Cartography & Power. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

“You have here the presidents of institutions that do not recognize each other […]. Each and every one denied the existence of the institutions that the others represented and their legitimacy. That is the difficulty of Libya’s current situation.” (“Libyan Factions Agree to Elections Despite Deep Divisions,” New York Times, May 29, 2018, quoting French President Emmanuel Macron.)

During a press briefing following a meeting hosted by the French President, he reflected on the defining characteristic of the contemporary Libyan condition. It has been almost seven years since the end of the February 17, 2011 Revolution. It was a revolution that was marked with a single-minded drive, in which the character of its now disposed dictator provided a strong bond and focus, a common enemy against which the population rallied. This would subsequently give reason for many to arrive at the logical explanation that there was optimism, a fertile ground from which a democratic state would take hold and flourish. This could not have been further from the case. With something close to national nihilism, there has been a nationwide unravelling of everything with even a semblance of unity. Today, Libya is governed by a wide variety of institutions. It hosts different competing governments, militia groups, and tribal leaders. There are no state institutions, there is no national unity that anyone can convincingly speak of. With even its flag serving as a contested object, the only remaining national marker resides in the country’s shape on the map, the representational boundary of its national extents. The map acting as the emblematic tool par excellence of the state as a singular identifiable whole.