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6 years after the Arab Spring: Where is Libya now?

February 15, 2017 at 9:30 am

Six years ago North Africa and the Middle East were engulfed by the fires of the Arab Spring in events that seemed unfathomable barely a year before. Fast forward six years and each country transitioning after the Arab Spring tells a very different and often tragic story.

Of all the countries that embraced the Jasmine Revolution, Libya’s transition was the most tumultuous and politically complex; by other definitions, nothing short of a failed state. Politically fragmented, a hotbed of extremism rippling throughout the region, a playing field for tribal alliances and the scene of much deprivation with an economy close to collapsing – Libya’s case is far from simple.

Libya and the Arab Spring

On 15 February 2011, demonstrations in the city of Benghazi took place against long-time leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi before quickly developing into an armed uprising.

On 12 March the Arab League called on the UN Security Council (UNSC) to impose a “no-fly zone” over Libya. Various NATO member states and Gulf countries subsequently joined forces for a sustained military campaign against the Libyan government based on the pretext of protecting innocent civilians.

Western states, led by France, the US and the UK, began the bombardment of Libya on 19 March and by the end of August the military offensive led by NATO, the Arab League and Libyan militias secured control of Tripoli and other cities to the authority of the National Transitional Council.

Gaddafi was finally captured and killed in his home town of Sirte by armed opponents on 20 October 2011 and on 31 October NATO officially terminated its seven month “Operation Unified Protector”.

The operation appeared successful however subsequent investigations later found that there was inadequate intelligence on the extent to which extremist militants would be involved in the anti-Gaddafi armed movements. This was the beginning of Libya’s problems.

Libya was now on a course of divisive politics based on regional, tribal and political affiliations with the hopes of a people that drove the spirit of demonstrations in 2011 soon hijacked for individualistic goals.

Libya post-Gaddafi

Libya six years later is currently a patchwork of cities and regions controlled by armed militia groups, tribal rivalries, warlords and city councils. Crime is at an all-time high and the concept of law and order now seem utopian.

Over 5,000 people have been killed since 2011 in various clashes between militias and operations against Daesh. Nearly half a million have been forced to flee; one-third fled to Tunisia and around 435,000 have sought shelter in public buildings.

Libya’s economic status is dire with its oil exports having declined by nearly 90 per cent since 2011 and its GDP losses estimated at around $200 billion.

To top that, Libya is now partner to one of the worst migrant crises in history with thousands of migrants and refugees travelling from the North African country in boats in the hope of reaching Europe.

Most significant of all, Libya has failed to create a functioning political government which is able to rule the affairs of the nation. Due to the gaping power vacuum and its porous borders, several extremist groups, including Daesh and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, now operate in Libya.

Weapon trading is common and Libya is currently home to the world’s largest arms cache. Large quantities of Gaddafi’s arsenal have been sold to Mali, Nige, and the Central African Republic by profiteering groups.

Accompanying the caches are around 2,000 para-military and small fringe militia groups operating in Libya from all dominations. Previously united in ending Gaddafi’s four decade rule, they are now fighting for control of the oil-rich country by backing the two rival governments both with their own prime ministers, parliaments and armies split by east and west.

Libya’s neighbouring states have attempted to mediate settlements and broker agreements between the rival factions to move forward with its political transition. Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt have avoided instilling proxy networks in the country and have attempted to contain the violence in Libya from spilling over into their borders and creating repercussions in the region.

Libya’s factious politics

Since 2012, Libya has attempted to elect a unified governing body with little success largely due to the friction between Islamist and nationalist entities and Gaddafi’s 42-year legacy leaving behind dysfunctional state institutions undermined by decades of authoritarian rule.

Libya’s current political makeup is linked mainly to formations in 2014. When the internationally recognised elected government failed to unify the political factions it was usurped by a coalition of armed groups named “Libya Dawn” who had rejected the election’s results and seized control of the capital.

The Tripoli government was then forced to relocate to Tobruk in eastern Libya near the Egyptian border while Libya Dawn backed the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli.

As forces began aligning with the Tobruk government against the GNC, the conflict became internationalised: Western states and Arab states including Egypt, the UAE and Saudi Arabia sided against the GNC, while Turkey, Qatar and Sudan, amongst others, supported the Islamist-dominated coalition.

In December 2015, a broad range of representatives met in Morocco to sign an UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) on forming a national unity government.

As a result of the agreement, the UN-backed “Government of National Accord” (GNA) was born as well as the Presidential Council (PC); a body that would act as head of state and supreme commander of the armed forces.

According to the LPA, the PC, currently headed by Fayez Al-Sarraj, formerly part of the Tobruk Parliament, should preside over the GNA. However since the Tobruk and Tripoli governments, as well as the House of Representatives (HoR), which has replaced the GNC lead by Chairman Aguila Saleh Issa, have rejected or failed to endorse the GNA, the LPA has not been implemented.

The HoR should be the legitimate legislative authority under the LPA in theory but has been unable to pass a valid constitutional amendment that enshrines itself as an authoritative body. Instead of following the LPA, the HoR constantly rejects proposals by the Presidential Council and instead has endorsed rival governments.

The GNC has been largely resurrected by the National Salvation Government lead by Prime Minister Khalifa Ghwell who is hostile to the Presidential Council and who has tried to reassert himself unsuccessfully. The majority of the members of the GNC have instead moved across to the State Council, a consultative body formed under the Libyan Political Agreement.

One figure which either government has to recognise is Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar. A previous ally of Gaddafi, Haftar lived in exile in the United States for nearly two decades after orchestrating a coup attempt against the former leader in the 1980s.

Both the Tobruk and Al-Bayda authorities are currently under the control of Haftar who is the head of the Libyan National Army (LNA) since his appointment in 2015 as commander of the armed forces loyal to the Tobruk government.

Esteem of Haftar’s credibility has grown alongside his vitriol for Islamists with his “Operation Dignity” campaign to “eliminate extremist terrorist groups” first launched in May 2014. A number of cities which were previously Daesh strongholds since 2014 were all secured late last year as a result of Haftar’s operations with US forces.

Haftar’s self-styled LNA is currently a mixture of military units and tribal and regional-based armed groups. However it has yet to gain the recognition as a legitimate army by any military personnel across Libya which may be irrelevant as Haftar’s popularity in eastern Libya increases. His growing proximity to Egypt and Russia means Libya’s top post is likely to be the next target for the military strongman.

Today, armed groups in Tripoli are largely categorised by whether or not they support the unity government led by Fayez Al-Sarraj. Most are either staunch supporters of the government or reject the government’s aims due to the belief that their interests will be ignored under new dispensations. Under this predicament, Libya is unlikely to progress and its situation will only further regress.

Failed state

With the absence of any political resolution to its war, Libya’s failed state status, coupled with its oil reserves will continue to cement its vulnerability to extremist forces with their objectives of power.

With Russia’s growing interests in supporting Haftar projected by its own ambitions in the region, it is likely western states will contest this growing relationship by seeking to stamp their own relevance in Libya.

Libya’s heightened standing in the international realm is likely to anger neighbouring states like Algeria whose staunch anti-interventionist stance has confined Libya’s peace reconciliation to mediatory methods with various degrees of success. Any intervention as an alternative solution would have severe repercussions in the region leading to further catastrophe for Libya.

Those who have undoubtedly been rendered irrelevant to the national discourse are the Libyan civilian population whose needs are seldom heard over the glaring failures of rival politics. The future looks bleak for Libya; though Libya’s bloodshed has not been as genocidal as that of Syria, Libya’s political stagnation has been significantly damaging for the country’s recovery. Libyan’s aspirations in 2011 have been reduced to mere dreams in the face of the country’s ongoing crises and, six years later, they are the true victims of Libya’s failures.

Timeline of events:

  • 15 February 2011 – Protests erupt in Benghazi after the arrest of Fathi Terbil, a prominent government critic and lawyer. Around 2,000 people take part in overnight protest. Security forces responded with lethal levels of violence.
  • 17 February 2011 – Libya’s “Day of Rage” brings thousands of people into the streets to protest against Gaddafi’s rule. Gaddafi forces respond by firing live ammunition at the crowds, allegedly killing more than a dozen demonstrators.
  • 20 February 2011 – After several days of fighting, anti-Gaddafi rebels seize control of Libya’s second city. Cities further east, including Baida and Tobruk, are already under opposition control at this point.
  • 26 February 2011– The United Nations Security Council passes an initial resolution freezing the assets of Gaddafi and his inner circle, placing travel restrictions on them and referring the matter to the International Criminal Court for investigation.
  • 5 March 2011 – A group of rebel leaders calling itself the National Transitional Council issues a statement declaring itself the sole representative of Libya.
  • 19 March 2011 – After a debate, the UNSC votes to impose a no-fly zone over Libya. French jets begin bombing the country hours after the resolution is passed.
  • 15 April 2011 – Gaddafi forces withdraw from Misrata.
  • 21 August 2011 – Opposition fighters enter Tripoli.
  • 16 September 2011 – National Transitional Council (NTC) is recognised by the UN as the legal representative of Libya, replacing the Gaddafi government.
  • 20 October 2011 – Gaddafi is captured and killed attempting to escape from Sirte.
  • 23 October 2011 – The NTC declares the liberation of Libya and the war is considered officially over.

Types of weapons/tools of oppression used during protests

When protests broke out in Libya, the government’s security forces responded by opening fire on the protesters. As the protests grew, Gaddafi pledged to chase down the “cockroaches” and “rats” who had taken up arms against him. A brutal conflict began, during which, according to Human Rights Watch, pro-Gaddafi forces indiscriminately shelled civilian areas, arrested thousands of protesters and others suspected of supporting the opposition, holding many in secret detention, and carrying out summary executions. He reportedly hired mercenaries from other African countries to brutally control the population.

People arrested or killed

Over 12,000 civilians were brought before military tribunals between 25 January 2011 and 30 June 2012. During the 18 day uprising, more than 846 people were killed.

Profile: Muammar Gaddafi

Muammar Gaddafi seized control of the Libyan government in 1969 in a bloodless military coup. He ruled as an authoritarian dictator for more than 40 years before he was overthrown in 2011. In his early days of rule, his views were largely influenced by pan-Arabism. Opposed to US interests, Gaddafi won little support from Washington and the West. This only got worse after the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am jumbo jet over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people. A series of US sanctions were imposed on Libya after Gaddafi’s initial refusal to hand over two Libyan suspects. Libya eventually acknowledged responsibility, agreeing to compensate the relatives of the victims, helping Gaddafi ease back into the international community.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.