Middle East North Africa
Arab Spring February 17, 2021

Ten years ago, Libyans staged a revolution. Here’s why it has failed.

By Borzou Daragahi

In early February, scores of Libyans gathered in Geneva to form yet another transitional authority, hoping to pave the way for yet another election and a government that could stabilize and unify the fractured North African nation. Around the same time, a new United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Special Envoy for Libya and Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) was named to lead the international effort to put the country back on track. Jan Kubis, a former foreign minister of Slovakia, will be the seventh diplomat to take up the task since the 2011 Libya civil war began.

Few are optimistic. Scholars and close observers say the odds that the new transitional government—headed by Prime Minister-elect Abdel-Hamid al-Dbeibeh—succeeds before the country again descends into another round of civil war are fifty-fifty at best. 

By almost any measure, Libya’s experience following the NATO-backed armed uprising has been a failure. Longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi and his kleptocratic family no longer lord over Libya. But Libyans are poorer, in greater peril, and experience as much or more political repression in parts of the country compared to Gaddafi’s rule. Libya remains divided politically and in a state of festering civil war. Frequent oil production halts while lack of oil fields maintenance has cost the country billions of dollars in lost revenues. 

Critics of the 2011 NATO-backed intervention have likened the Libyan experience to Iraq, where the government of dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled by a US invasion in 2003. But, ten years on, it’s important to dispel myths about why Libya went so wrong so as not to draw the wrong lessons.   

During his confirmation hearing on January 19, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken described some of the context for what drew NATO military powers into the war in the first place. It was a brief moment when the entire United Nations Security Council—rivals as well as friends—along with the Arab League, endorsed the intervention. 

“We had Muammar Gaddafi saying that he was going to slaughter like rats those opposing him, including all of the inhabitants of Benghazi,” he told lawmakers. “We faced what looked like a potential for a mass atrocity that was heading our way.”

Gaddafi’s overthrow in August 2011 with NATO’s help was a moment of pure joy for Libya. It prompted night after night of celebrations throughout the country. 

“Libyans justly point to what extent they have already surprised us, and perhaps themselves, in what they have achieved,” UN envoy to Libya Ian Martin said in October 2011. “They have done so with an extraordinary display of civic responsibility and initiative by women and men, and especially by their youth. They may seek from us lessons in the details of democracy, but they can offer lessons in its spirit…They are proud that they made their revolution and are determined to maintain their sovereignty in building their future.”

But the grim reality was that Gaddafi had not left much by way of institutions to help the country rebuild any future, and the coming months would be grim.

“They were intoxicated at the time and they [didn’t] realize the challenges and dangers that lie ahead—a fragmented country with a lot of weapons,” said one Libyan insider.

It’s an open question whether Libyans would have welcomed more outside support if the international community had insisted, perhaps, as some have suggested, by withholding funds and access to bank accounts until Libyans met certain benchmarks in governance and security. 

But one thing is certain: the world got too distracted too quickly. The US, still traumatized by the debacle in Iraq and the worsening conflict in Afghanistan, famously chose to “lead from behind” on Libya. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had spearheaded the NATO intervention, and UK Prime Minister David Cameron were quickly distracted by political problems at home. 

The result was that Libyans were left to fend for themselves as armed groups with various agendas pilfered weapons storage sites and solidified their hold over the country. 

“The lesson of Libya is about the danger of leaving a power vacuum,” said Michelle Dunne, a former US diplomat now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “There needed to be a follow-up, not an occupation. But some sort of peace process: an international peacekeeping force, the integrating of militias. There wasn’t any of that. All the international actors were eager to leave.”

What ensued was what one former American diplomat, who served in Libya, described as “a free for all”—where various players scrambled to solidify their positions and bolster their access to the country’s resources. 

Those excluded from power under the current regime, such as the ex-Ghaddafi loyalists, demanded more of a share of resources, and those who were perceived to have benefited complained that they were unjustly cut out even though they had taken part in the revolution. Mistrust and resentment swelled and there was little in the way of government institutions or civil society to manage disagreements. 

“The international [community] should have said, ‘You’re locked in a room and you have to work it out,’” said the anonymous diplomat. “They needed to impose enough structure to make it possible for sharing to take place instead of conquest.”

What little structure was put in place appeared to facilitate rather than hinder Libya’s downward spiral. The 2012 parliamentary elections organized and overseen by the UN were a disaster in retrospect. The first-past-the-goalpost victors had little name recognition nor public credibility and were subject to easy manipulation by powerful gunmen.  

The parliament solidified political and ideological rifts without addressing badly needed security sector reforms. Hundreds of assassinations were unfolding in eastern Libya in a still unresolved campaign of terror that appeared to target perceived figures in the security forces. The chaos included the 2012 murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens at the US Consulate in Benghazi, a tragic assassination that pushed western nations further away from involvement in Libya and, compounding the disaster, narrowed the focus of outside players to a myopic counter-terrorism prism. 

Among the mistakes that made the Libyan failure inevitable was the so-called Political Isolation Law in 2013—legislation meant to bar former Gaddafi regime figures from re-entering politics, even though many of them had led the revolution against the former dictator. The law left political arenas open only to former exiles and the unruly bands of armed “revolutionaries” who had grouped themselves into armed fighters.  

“You essentially had the militias taking over the parliament and everyone else kicked out,” explained the former western diplomat. 

Those kicked out regrouped themselves in the east under former armed forces commander General Khalifa Haftar, who launched his quest to conquer Libya in 2014. 

The chaos created an opening for the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which took over Sirte and other cities and staged attacks across the country. The terrorist group was eventually driven back into the desert with the help of US, French, and other armed forces working alongside Libyan fighters. 

But it is the ongoing war of wills and armed forces between General Haftar and his rivals that defines Libya now, with foreign backers increasingly involved on both sides. It is an internationalized battle pitting the ambitions of the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia against Turkey and Qatar. Along with Russia and France, foreign interlopers have established military bases on Libyan soil. Nearly twenty countries were involved in the Berlin conference in early 2020 that was meant to decide Libya’s fate. 

The irony is that Libyans’ insistence on sovereignty and the world’s all-too-eager willingness to abide by it ten years ago, led to a reality in which the country has little if any sovereignty. Instead, it is dotted with foreign military bases, swarming with fighters from abroad, and having its fate decided by world powers at conferences on other continents.

Borzou Daragahi is an international correspondent for The Independent. He is also a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs. Follow him on Twitter: @borzou

Image: A rebel fighter holds a Kingdom of Libya flag and a knife during shelling by soldiers loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in a battle near Ras Lanuf, March 4, 2011. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/File Photo