The dictator’s unseemly end should have been a warning. The 42-year rule of Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi concluded with his capture and beating by an angry mob before he was killed. The 2011 uprising that led to his ouster unleashed hopes that the oil-rich country he’d turned into an international pariah would rebuild and lure investment. Instead battles between rival militias morphed into fighting between dueling governments. The turmoil devastated the country’s oil exports and helped fuel Europe’s refugee crisis, with Libyans fleeing and other asylum-seekers streaming through. The havoc also allowed militant groups, notably Islamic State, to take root. Libya’s competing governments agreed in principle to unite in late 2015, but the country remains split among a shifting patchwork of tribes, militias and Islamic State.
More than a year after the signing of a United Nations-brokered deal to form a unity government under parliamentarian Fayez al-Sarraj, the new administration remains largely ineffectual. Among its competitors are disgruntled Islamists who theoretically lost power with the establishment of the new government but still control parts of the capital. Numerous militias battle for territory in other parts of the country. And then there is the main rival to the UN-backed government: Khalifa Haftar, a renegade general who rose to prominence battling Ansar al-Shariah, an al-Qaeda offshoot blamed for the 2012 death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi. Further fueling tensions is the Islamic State, which has attacked all sides. Militias backed by U.S. air strikes have diminished the area under its control and in December routed the group from its stronghold of Sirte. More than 5,800 people, by one count, have died in fighting in Libya and as many as 652,000 have been displaced. Libya’s vital oil industry is a focus of competing forces. Oil output had been improving, but clashes in March forced two of the country’s biggest ports to shut down.
Libya’s long stretch of Mediterranean coastline brought occupation or colonization by Greeks, Romans, Persians, various Islamic dynasties and Italy before World War II. A block of desert about the size of Alaska, Libya has the world’s 10th-largest oil reserves. Its three traditional regions — Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica — were brought together as the Kingdom of Libya in 1951. Qaddafi’s 1969 coup established a country defined by its dictator and guided by his Green Book — a philosophical tome about everything from menstruation to economics. Oil wealth transformed the country of 6.4 million people from one of the world’s poorest into one of the wealthiest in Africa, and it amassed more than $100 billion in reserves. Oil provided free education and subsidized food, fuel, housing and health care, along with weapon stockpiles. Qaddafi supported Palestinian militants and sponsored terrorist groups. He eventually accepted responsibility for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland; his statement led to the lifting of U.S. and European Union sanctions in 2003. The Arab Spring uprisings found fertile ground in Libya, triggering violence in February 2011 that led to NATO airstrikes on Qaddafi’s forces. The transitional government that replaced Qaddafi proved unable to stabilize the nation and rein in militias that doubled as police and de facto military forces.
Given the transnational threat posed by Islamic State, a number of countries have pushed the idea of some kind of intervention. The U.S. intensified air strikes against Islamic State in Libya in August. It has small numbers of elite forces there, as do France, Britain and Italy, according to news reports. The UN barred arms exports to Libya in 2011. A group of 21 countries, including the U.S., said in 2016 that they were willing to support a request by the unity government for an exception. The countries called for a joint command structure to combine military forces of Libya’s feuding sides. The emergence of such a command appears unlikely any time soon. Also, there’s a risk that the Libyan parties eventually would use foreign arms on each other, worsening the country’s turmoil.
The Reference Shelf
- A guide to Libya’s fractious factions by the European Council on Foreign Relations.
- Reports on the United Nations Support Mission in Libya.
- An International Crisis Group report on Libya’s turmoil.
- Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center, researched the task of reconstructing Libya.
- A U.S. Senate probe into the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi and a QuickTake on the topic.
- Bloomberg Businessweek reported on “How Libya Blew Billions and Its Best Chance at Democracy.”
First published Aug. 21, 2014
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