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Remembering the Libyan Revolution

The 2011 Libyan Revolution inspired by the Arab Spring protests across the Middle East

February 15, 2021 at 9:00 am

By 2011, oil-rich Libya had been governed by Muammar Gaddafi (1942-2011) for more than 40 years. His eccentricity masked a cruel dictatorship and the people of Libya refused to be bought off by cuts in basic food prices. They had had enough of purges, nepotism and corruption.

What: 2011 Libyan Revolution inspired by the Arab Spring protests across the Middle East

Where: Libya

When: 15 Feb 2011 – 23 Oct 2011

What happened?

On 15 February 2011, inspired and buoyed by the uprisings in other Arab countries, especially neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia, Libya’s popular revolution broke out in Benghazi. Hundreds of people gathered outside a government building in the city following the arrest of a young human rights lawyer, Fethi Tarbel. The protesters called for Gaddafi to step down and for the release of political prisoners.

Protests spread quickly to other cities, leading to escalating clashes between security forces and anti-government rebels. Hundreds of people were reported to have been killed by security forces in Benghazi.

Even though demonstrators faced live ammunition fired by Gaddafi’s forces, they took control of Benghazi on 20 February. Other cities in eastern Libya soon followed. Shocked by the brutality of the government response to the demonstrations, a number of senior officials resigned from Gaddafi’s administration.

READ: How the United Nations took over Libya, then decided its future

The National Transitional Council (NTC) was formed as an umbrella group to represent the rebels. It was led by defectors from Gaddafi’s government, and was for a time the de facto government of Libya, gaining recognition in western and Arab capitals.

At the end of February, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1970 to suspend Libya from the Human Rights Council, impose sanctions and call for an investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) into the regimes shooting of civilians. Qatar and the UAE sent troops to help the poorly-trained NTC forces. In April, a NATO air strike in Tripoli killed one of Gaddafi’s sons and three of his grandsons.

The NATO air strikes are said to have been crucial for the rebels taking control of the east and moving towards the capital in the west of Libya. Backed by the persecuted Amazigh minority, the rebels took control of Tripoli in August 2011.

Gaddafi evaded capture until 20 October, when he was caught and killed in Sirte. He was 68 years old.

What happened next?

The National Transitional Council faced a difficult task. Libya’s state institutions were fragile and there was a lot of corruption in the country. The cult of Gaddafi’s personality, mixed with tribal loyalties and patronage had defined the political culture for four decades.

Libyan assets were unfrozen by the UN and money was physically flown to the Central Bank of Libya in Tripoli. Preparations were made for the election of the General National Congress (GNC) in 2012. Factions within the country, however, were unhappy at the GNC and further divisions were created. Libyan-American General Khalifa Haftar led a militia to overthrow the GNC in February 2014.

Elections were held for a new House of Representatives, but the turnout was very low at an estimated 18 per cent, as a result, many people refused to accept the result and the legitimacy of the legislative body. Attacks and bombings took place in a number of cities across the country, leading to a new civil war. The House of Representatives relocated to Haftar’s stronghold of Benghazi, while efforts to create a national unity government based in Tripoli were ongoing.

The result was the Government of National Accord (GNA), which was recognised by the UN as the legitimate government of Libya in late 2015 before holding its first meeting in Tunis in January 2016. The GNA relocated to Tripoli in March 2016.

Haftar refused to accept the GNA’s authority and has led a militia war against the legitimate government since it was formed. He remains supported by the UAE and Egypt, as well as France. The GNA, meanwhile, has been backed by Qatar and Turkey. It was with Turkish assistance that GNA forces were able to push back and defeat Haftar’s “Libyan National Army” last year. The country is now going through a difficult process of negotiations to bring the civil war to an end.

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