Libya Part One: The 2011 Civil War


The Africa Series continues with a focus on Libya, which underwent a brief civil war in 2011 and has been suffering the consequences ever since with a second civil war beginning in 2014. In Part One, we look at the 2011 civil war and the period leading up to it.

In 2011 Libya had been ruled by Muammar Gaddafi for 42 years and after years of confrontation with the West and his neighbours Libya had reached a point where its international relations had been normalised. Yet, while the country seemed to be a cohesive state, there were underlying tensions internally and the improved foreign relations were only a recent development. Gaddafi had maintained power through balancing the interests of tribes, other competing demands and through outright repression when required. While there were numerous attempts at reform and the encouragement of ‘popular revolution’ there was never any question regarding Gaddafi’s position as the ‘permanent leader of the revolution’. Unlike other authoritarian states there was a distinct merging of revolutionary politics, socialism and Islam, guided by Gaddafi’s infamous ‘Green Book’. Akin to such states, any challenge to Gaddafi’s lifelong rule was comprehensively crushed. Aligned with the Soviet bloc during the Cold War the Gaddafi regime sponsored international terrorism, assassinated its opponents abroad, fought brief wars with Egypt and Chad, and challenged the West directly. Incidents such as the bombing of a Berlin nightclub packed with US soldiers, the downing of a Pan Am flight over the Scottish town of Lockerbie, and murder of a British policewoman outside the Libyan embassy ensured that, for the British and Americans at least, Libya became a pariah state. Relations were only normalised in the new century with the UN sanctions imposed after the Lockerbie bombing lifted in 2003. Throughout his rule Gaddafi faced of challengers, protesters and, in the 1990s, an Islamic resurgence though pragmatism, manipulation and brute force. Dissent had been declared illegal in 1973.

While, to the outsider, Libya’s fortunes as a country seemed to be on the up, in reality it was a fragile nation in which people were naturally more allied to local and tribal leaders than the central government. As has frequently been the case in authoritarian countries, prosperity was balanced by repression and governance depended on favours. Crucially, the government was not meeting its side of the ‘ruling bargain’ and dissent was able to spread through social media. When protests were brutally put down again in 2011 the situation escalated quickly into a rebellion as Gaddafi quickly denounced the emerging opposition as terrorists and blamed outside influences for the rebellion. In truth, the protestors were looking to the fall of the Tunisian and Egyptian leaders through popular revolt as an inspiration while the security services cracked down. The use of force against protestors meant that some of the military and police defected to the opposition, which also included civilians and Islamists. Libyan cities, including Benghazi, fell to rebel forces and the government then launched a counterattack. The UN Security Council acted quickly, passing resolution 1973, which called for a ceasefire and authorised the implementation of a no-fly zone and the protection of civilians. This was mainly enforced by NATO and has been credited with tipping the balance in favour of the rebel National Transition Council (NTC), whom quickly took Tripoli and other government territory. Gaddafi was killed near the city of Sirte in October 2011. While clashes continued into 2012 the government had already been defeated when Tripoli fell in September 2011.

The descent into civil war in Libya was due to the influence of the Arab Spring and the government’s response to protests calling for democracy and accountability. This is in itself was not a unique situation as there had been regime change in Tunisia and Egypt as a result of protests against autocratic rule. In 2011 the state had appeared to be stable but had little legitimacy in the eyes of its people and the standard autocratic response of crushing dissent failed due to severity of the punishment meted out to protestors, who had initially been protesting for better conditions. Social media was not only a utility for organising protests, but also a means by which the response of the regime could be seen as a whole. This was enough for the rapid change from protest to rebellion when the use of repression, so effective before, failed. The defection of senior military figures to the rebellion was a development that would also occur in Syria where a similar pattern of crushing dissent and blaming ‘terrorists’ and outside influences failed to hide the fact that protests had escalated to rebellion due to the response of the government to calls for reform. Where Libya was unique was in the severity of the foreign intervention against the government and this can be put down to Gaddafi’s previous relationship with the West in particular. The normalisation of relations did not mean that previous events had been forgotten and when the government failed to implement the ceasefire required by UNSC Resolution 1973 the no-fly zone quickly became a de-facto provision of air support for the opposition forces. While this overstepped the resolution by a clear margin, marring relations between the permanent members of the UNSC, it also meant that the civil war was over in less than a year. It did not, however, guarantee the future success of a new Libyan government or prevent the gradual dissent into a second civil war.

Next week: Factional violence and a new civil war.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

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