Libya Part Two: Factional Violence (2011-2014)


Amongst the countries that experienced the Arab Spring Libya is unique in that it was the only country where the West intervened militarily and provided the support for the rebels against a country’s leader. Of all the leaders challenged by Arab Spring inspired uprisings Muammar Gaddafi stood out as one whom had challenged the West through support for terrorism and had sent his own security apparatus out to kill US citizens and soldiers, killing UK citizens in the process. It is little surprise that when it came to question of intervening to prevent a massacre in Benghazi the normalisation of relations between the West and Libya was quickly forgotten and the rebels backed in their offensive against Gaddafi’s forces. The aftermath of the fall of Gaddafi is the subject of this week’s blog and the events that transpired would later affect western politicians and the UN Security Council when it came to the question of intervening in Syria.

Between the end of the First Libyan Civil War that ended the Gaddafi regime in October 2011 and the beginning of the Second Libyan Civil War in May 2014 there was a period of factional violence as Libya’s politicians attempted to establish a functioning government. The National Transition Council (NTC) that was recognised internationally did not have full control of the disparate rebels whom had participated in the fall of Gaddafi. There was a variety of armed groups, some defectors from the Libyan army, Islamists, tribal groups and other militias formed in self-defence, which sought recognition and representation in post-conflict Libya. Many of these groups were reluctant to hand over their weapons and some moved on to actively asserting their position as ‘guardians of the revolution’, adopting a political stance. Put succinctly, there were too many groups, too many guns and a weak central government that could not meet the demands of all. Included within the spectrum of armed groups were Islamists and Jihadists. While the Islamists had previously had a strong presence in Libyan politics and society, the Jihadists were Al-Qaeda and ISIS linked and arose due to the declining security situation. The extent of the proliferation of armed groups is demonstrated by the estimate that by 2016 there were approximately 1,700 armed groups active in Libya.

The NTC handed power over to the newly elected General National Council (GNC) in August 2012 after a general election with 2.8 million registered voters. However, the GNC and successive governments had inherited a problem whereby some of the armed groups were on the government payroll. They had been called upon to register and unite under the Ministry of Defence but this also conferred some legitimacy to the groups. Armed groups were able to ally with political groups in order to influence the functioning of the government. After a lethal assault on the US embassy in Benghazi the government cracked down on the semi-legal militias, declaring that they should come under the authority of the government or disband. To do this they were dependent on larger militias to help them, again conferring legitimacy on independent armed groups.  By April 2013 the situation had deteriorated to the extent that the US and UK withdrew their diplomatic staff from Libya. The situation worsened with the Libyan Prime Minister briefly kidnapped in October of 2013 and Deputy Interior Minister shot dead in January 2014. This was the tip of the iceberg of a descent into political rivalry and chaos that culminated with the former Gaddafi loyalist General Khalifa Haftar launching a major military operation against Islamist militias in Benghazi. ‘Operation Dignity’ effectively marks the beginning of the Second Libyan Civil War.

The complexity of the situation in Libya in the period between the First and Second Civil wars is difficult to convey in the space of a blog and the reader is directed to the additional material below for a better understanding. The descent into violence was a result of the prevalence of independent armed groups operating in the country and the inability of a new government to disarm them and bring them into a national army. The ability of these groups to both influence politics and act criminally with near impunity fundamentally undermined the attempts of a newly emerging and fractious group of politicians divided over the future constitution of the new Libyan state. Amongst these were liberals, moderates and Islamists. The linkages between armed groups and politics and the dependence of politicians on the support of armed groups effectively crippled any attempt at constructive and inclusive politics. New democracies are notoriously vulnerable to terrorism and insurgency and Libya is a brutal and tragic example.

Next week: The Second Civil War.

For more information regarding this week’s blog see:!/conflict/civil-war-in-libya

Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator.

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