By Zineb Abdessadok

A chronology of Libya’s path from a transitional government to a failed state – Part 1:

This week, fighting erupted between rival militias in Tripoli, shattering a period of calm that lasted since March. The UN-backed government lost more than 50 fighters.

Also, Egyptian air force planes continue to strike camps near Derna, in east Libya. The air strikes were a response to a deadly attack against Christians in Egypt that took place last Friday. The Egyptian president claims that the area hosts “terrorist camps”.

There are three rival governments vying for control of Libya. There are two governments in Tripoli. One of them is the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which has struggled to exert authority following the 2015 peace deal. This is mainly due to the refusal of authorities controlling eastern Libya to recognise the GNA as Libya’s official government.

Here is a breakdown of how Libya got to this point moving from a promising transitional government to a state of ongoing conflict. 

The Uprising 

Buoyed by the other revolts in neighbouring Arab countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, Libya’s popular uprising against the authoritarian rule of Muammar Gaddafi began in February 2011. 

What started off as protests against Gaddafi’s rule quickly descended into an armed conflict as security forces, loyal to Gaddafi, clashed with protesters, using warplanes to bomb them.

As protests entered their second week, almost 300 civilians were reported to have been killed.

The increasing number of civilian casualties led the United Nations to pass a resolution that designated Libya a no-fly zone. The resolution also called for the protection of civilians by any means necessary.

On March 31, NATO began carrying out air strikes as a result of the UN’s proposal to protect civilians.

After the conclusion of the operation, a UN report found that 60 civilians were killed by NATO air strikes and 55 wounded. The report also states that NATO did not carry thorough investigations regarding air raids that killed civilians. 

Libya, a country of about 6.4 million people, is mainly made up of Arab and Berber ethnicities. There are also nomadic tribes to the south, such as the Tuareg and Tebu tribes. 

The country was ruled by Gaddafi for 42 years, making him the longest-reigning leader in the Arab world. He came to power in 1969 after a bloodless coup against Libya’s King Idris I. 

Libya’s economy was heavily dependent on its crude oil industry. Before the popular uprising, the country produced around 1.6 million barrels a day. After the popular uprising, oil production plummeted to zero, but rose up again after the first elections.

However, when the conflict flared up again in 2014, oil production fell, especially after rival militias started fighting over key oil facilities. As of early 2017, Libya produces around 700,000 barrels a day, according to the National Oil Corp. 

The country’s GDP was heavily reliant on Libya’s oil industry, so it drastically fell after the uprising. 

Eight months after the uprising, the internationally recognised National Transition Council of Libya, largely comprising loosely organised local armed groups that sprang up in towns such as Beneghazi and Misrata as a governing authority for the uprising, announced the “liberation” of Libya.

However, Libyans were soon frustrated with the interim government’s failure to act.

The NTC had promised to fulfill a long list of needs, including a functioning justice system, a reconciliation process for officials who served the old administration, the disarming of militia, building functional national security forces, rebuilding destroyed areas and delivering basic services such as healthcare.

A great component of their failure was the stagnation of Libya’s economy following the removal of Gaddafi. International advisers and foreign investors were reluctant to return to an environment where the government would not sign long-term agreements and could not guarantee security.

By July 2012, 2.7 million people registered to vote in Libya’s first free election. The General National Congress (GNC) replaced the NTC after the elections.

Benghazi US Consulate Attack

In September 2012, a heavily armed group stormed the US Special Mission in Benghazi, and killed US Ambassador J Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

Following the attack, the US and Britain withdrew some diplomatic staff from Libya, amid security concerns over a flare-up in political unrest. 

Elections of 2014

Frustration against the GNC was exacerbated by its refusal to step down after the mandate for their rule expired. Thousands of Libyans protested in Tripoli and Benghazi, demanding the interim government step down as promised.

GNC members had extended the mandate to provide a special assembly with time to write a new constitution, which they claimed was imperative to a stable Libya.  

Libya’s second elections since the popular uprising were marred by violence. The voter turnout was low. Instead of voting for parties, Libyans voted for members of parliament in an attempt to ease tensions.

The GNC handed power over to the newly elected House of Representatives (HoR), while a battle raged in Tripoi’s airport.  “Libya could have stabilised after the popular uprising if the government didn’t split into rivalling factions,” said Nizar Krikshi, a Libyan political analyst.

“With [General Khalifa] Haftar’s operation dignity, it became obvious that armed forces would be used to resolve the rivalry between the different political parties,” Krikshi told Al Jazeera.

Who is Khalifa Haftar?

In May 2014, General Khalifa Haftar, a military defector from Gaddafi’s era, launched his campaign, Operation Dignity, claiming to protect Libya from “terrorists”. Forces loyal to Haftar fought against armed groups in Benghazi, and took over the strategic Libyan city.

Haftar defected to the US in the late 1980s. He returned to Libya after the downfall of Gaddafi and is currently fighting other forces for the control of Libya.

In the lead up to his operation, Haftar garnered support from local tribes and businessmen. He gathered former soldiers of the Libyan army to beef up his armed forces, and appealed to foreign support presenting himself as a key to Libya’s stability, according to the International Center for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT).

Some viewed his operation as an attempted coup similar to the one Abdel Fattah el-Sisi carried out in Egypt in July 2013.

The violence spread to Tripoli, where the newly formed Libya Dawn coalition, led by armed groups from Misrata and their allies, fought against Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) at the capital’s international airport.

Armed groups from Zintan, who had controlled the airport since 2011, also took part in the clashes over the airport. Libya Dawn then gained control of the airport and Tripoli.

This victory set the tone for two opposing governments in Libya.

The GNC was reinstated in Tripoli while the elected HoR moved to the eastern city of Tobruk.

However, in November 2014, the Libyan Supreme Court ruled that the HoR was unconstitutional after the court found that the committee behind the election law violated Libya’s provisional constitution.

Unifying Libya’s two governments

A UN peace deal, the Skhirat agreement, was signed in December 2015 and attempted to broker peace in the country by proposing a unified government.  

The deal put together a six-point plan to end the conflict. It proposed a one-year transitional period during which they could decide on issues such as disarmament, control of the country’s airports and the writing of a constitution.

At the time it was signed, a presidential council was expected to lead during the transitional period. The planned government was made up of a nine-member presidential council called the General National Accord (GNA), the elected HoR, and a State Council to serve as consultative chamber.

It fell on the presidential council to name a new government within a month, which a UN Security Council resolution promised to endorse.

A unified government was also seen as a way to end the rising threat of Islamic State group ISIL, also known as ISIS, in Libya. Western officials stated that the priority following the political agreement was to rebuild a national army to fight ISIL.


Zineb Abdessadok spent the past four years at Northwestern’s branch campus in Qatar. Her interests are across-the-board. Abdessadok grew up in Ottawa, Canada, and has previously worked for various local publications in Qatar, in addition to interning at Time.













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