Government professor and prominent Libya expert Dirk Vandewalle is serving as an advisor to the country’s first national election in over 50 years in the wake of the death of longstanding dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Vandewalle has over 30 years of experience studying the region and has served as an advisor to the United Nations special envoy for the United Nations Special Mission in Libya.
Although he has recently continued to teach classes at the College and lead foreign study programs, Vandewalle has remained involved in the Libyan electoral process, according to government department chair John Carey. Vandewalle served as a political advisor to United Nations Special Advisor Ian Martin last summer, helping the UN plans for the nation’s future in the aftermath of the conflict.
“The big challenge will be the elections,” Vandewalle said in a College press release. “But we should not forget that we are only a few months after the end of the country’s civil war.”
The National Transitional Council, the country’s current government, is in the process of determining the laws that will govern the elections in June, according to Reuters. Last week, the NTC passed a law banning political parties founded by tribal, religious and ethnic groups. The law’s effect on groups such as the strongly supported Muslim Brotherhood was unclear but the NTC rescinded the law on Wednesday, according to BBC.
“One of the institutions you need to build are parties, and Libya has had no parties except a formalist rule Qaddafi has built and led, and now it’s irrelevant and no one would admit to belonging to it,” government professor emeritus Nelson Kasfir said. “The problem is how to build parties in that environment.”
Vandewalle’s involvement in Libya has been publicized by a variety of international media outlets since the outbreak of the Arab Spring last winter, with many drawing on his expertise as events unfolded. It was during his time advising the government FSP in London during the fall that he learned that the Libyan dictatorship had ended after 42 years.
“Qaddafi died while we were there, so that day I think he had about 10 interviews right after class, but I think he balanced everything really well,” program participant Timothy Brown ’13 said. “It was cool to see an academic in action on the front line of everything that was going on.”
The UN Support Mission in Libya is currently working to build institutions in the region, facilitate the June elections, create a national constitution, increase security and raise election awareness, according to its website.
The UN has “made some headway on a number of issues that the country desperately needed to get settled,” Vandewalle said in the press release.
Although Vandewalle’s course during the FSP focused on the British Empire, students had the opportunity to attend his public lecture on the Arab Spring, Sahil Joshi ’13 said. Vandewalle is “wildly busy,” but his involvement has proven beneficial to students and the government department, Joshi said.
“I thought it was an added bonus to have someone who was that knowledgeable about current events there with us, and he kept us in the loop,” he said. “Especially in terms of comparative politics and international relations, we have a very strong department, so it’s great that someone’s able to put that to practical use.”
Vandewalle will teach courses at the College until next Winter term and will serve as the faculty director for the Asian and Middle Eastern studies’ Morocco FSP next spring, according to Carey.
“In the immediate term, it makes Dartmouth visible in the world, and he’ll be back next winter,” Carey said.
Vandewalle’s extensive research and fieldwork will allow him to apply his expertise in Libya’s volatile political climate, as well as in Dartmouth classrooms, according to Carey, who has also done electoral research in the region.
“Since September, he’s probably spent more time in North Africa than anywhere else,” Carey said. “He’ll bring perspective into the classroom you couldn’t get any other way.”
While Vandewalle may have initially gained access to the region due to his Belgian background, his effectiveness in the current political climate comes from his expertise and familiarity with the area, according to Kasfir.
“He’s had unusual access into Libya and therefore he’s built up a lot of contacts and a lot of friends,” Kasfir said. “He has people who he can go to and who he can talk to, some of whom are probably in high positions and some of whom are probably in prison.”
Despite the difficulties Libya faces as it moves into a post-conflict future, Vandewalle remains optimistic about the region’s stability and potential, he said in the press release.
“Obviously, the big issue now for the UN is the elections and then the writing of the country’s new constitution,” Vandewalle said. “A lot of times it’s two steps forward and one step backward, but I’m quite a bit more optimistic than I was even a few months ago.”