As part of its 10-Years Since the Arab Spring Series, Crisis Response Council asked experts to reflect on the legacy of the 2011 uprising in Libya.
Experts were asked to examine the key dynamics that have emerged since, the implications of the uprising for Libya, the region and the wider international community.
The last ten years of Libya’s history shows that all the joy for the overthrow of the 42-year old regime of Muamar Gaddafi has been dissipated by a reality of fragmented authority, widespread violence, disorder and a breakdown of social relations.
Instead of seeing the formation of a single “liberation army” to overthrow the regime, there has been an emergence of hundreds of locally-run and locally-tied militias, who currently constitute the main obstacle to the stabilization of the country.
The attempt to appease them by various governments in Tripoli since 2011 was a major mistake. It has proved in fact that the political arm is subjected to the military one, and not the other way around. The civilian and political institutions that were being being built became rapidly dominated by the armed actors.
It would not be entirely correct to blame the NATO intervention, which was supposed to be limited to protecting the citizens of Benghazi from a bloody retaliation by regime forces but then evolved into an operation focused on regime change. Nevertheless, the fact that NATO was essential in changing the regime to a large extent makes it responsible for the breakdown that followed the intervention. NATO broke the toy but did not want to buy or fix it.
This is the first lesson that Western powers should heed: if and when an intervention in a foreign country is decided, it should be followed by a reconstruction plan, at least. A second, and in many aspects even more important lesson, is to undertake a thorough and independent analysis of the situation on the ground before placing complete trust in the diaspora. The Libyan diaspora played an important role in misguiding NATO leaders on their actual capacity to run the country smoothly without any foreign support or oversight.
A third lesson stems from allowing too much space for international actors to interfere in the domestic affairs of the country in question. The withdrawal of the US-presence has given room for many international actors to pursue their own economic and private interests by supporting if not enhancing internal divisions and conflicts.
Libya again is a case study for this occurrence: the plethora of foreign troops, mercenaries and varied intelligence services that are operating in Libya is appalling, and adds to the increasing complexity of the conflict landscape and difficulty in enabling a strategy to solve the civil war.
It was a sentence I heard over and over when I arrived in Benghazi days after anti-regime protests erupted there in February 2011: “The youth took us by surprise.” Older Libyans were struck by the swell of young people driving those first demonstrations against Gaddafi. Many youths were killed in the subsequent armed uprising that brought an end to his 42-year rule. When it was over, Libyans talked of what a post-Gaddafi future would look like. The younger generation dreamt of “Dubai on the Mediterranean.”
Ten years on, many young Libyans feel betrayed by the promises of the 2011 uprising. They struggle with chronic insecurity, poor living conditions, few prospects, and a society bitterly polarised by nearly seven years of civil conflict. They feel disconnected from an ageing political class that seems unwilling or incapable of moving the oil-rich country forward.
A large number have emigrated, some have even taken the smugglers’ boat across the Mediterranean. Others are growing increasingly restive at home. Last summer, they chose to make their frustrations known through the biggest nationwide protests Libya has witnessed for a decade.
Two years earlier, demonstrations by youths in the neglected southern region of Fezzan led to the shutdown of Libya’s largest oil field. Echoing similar demographic patterns elsewhere in the region, Libya has a strikingly young population. Those who came of age during the 2011 uprising are now in their late 20s.
Following them is a new generation with no lived memory of the Gaddafi era. Their young lives have instead been shaped by the chaos of the past decade.In recent weeks, a UN-led dialogue birthed a new temporary government for Libya, one tasked with shepherding the country towards elections in December.
Young Libyans will be watching and waiting to see what the recently established interim authority – and whatever elected government might succeed it – can deliver. Many demand that youth should have a greater say in the future of the country.
Some have already spent years building a fragile civil society space despite the odds. Libya’s leaders – and their international partners – would do well to heed the lessons of the past and engage more with its youth, lest they too end up being taken by surprise.
A decade after the revolution in Libya, the popular uprising has disintegrated into a complex, multipolar conflict where the roadmap forward is increasingly being decided by external patrons than Libyans themselves. What started as a genuine popular uprising against authoritarianism and social injustice, has been hijacked by the geostrategic interests of external parties who employ Libyans as surrogates for their own projects in North Africa.
From the variety of external actors that sponsor local groups in this conflict, only a few can really be considered as fairly non-partisan mediators – such as the United States, the United Kingdom or Germany – trying to bring about a pluralistic and representative solution to building a stable post-revolutionary Libya.
Among the many Western and regional powers who have intervened either militarily or diplomatically in Libya over the past decade, most have pursed their own interests at the expense of a united Libyan solution. Material, logistical and armed support has polarized the local environment both on the battlefield and in the information environment to an extent that conflict resolution now is more difficult than ever.
The most disruptive intervention has come under the false pretext of “countering extremism” and “fighting terrorism” to undermine the hopes of many Libyans for a more inclusive, accountable and socially just form of government. Weaponized narratives have been used to mobilize international and local support for a counterrevolutionary campaign that created more grievances and injustices that genuine extremist groups can now exploit. Fighting revolution with counterrevolution has created conditions in parts of Libya, which are now as bad if not worse than under the authoritarian rule of the Gadhafi clan.
Consecutive coups by Haftar supported and empowered by a number of international actors, has done little to genuinely counter violent extremism. On the contrary, it has fuelled polarization and counter-mobilization that has turned Libya from a fairly homogenous society in 2011 into communities that today are defined by ideological and tribal fault lines. It has emboldened the narratives of extremists as well as the appeal for violent means to defend against the onslaught of Haftar’s uncontrollable militia network.
Tens years on from the uprising in Benghazi, Libyans appear to be further away from achieving the ideals of the revolution than a decade ago. Those few external mediators that remain, most importantly the United Nations, have to ensure that external meddling in Libya ceases and that the future of Libya is decided by Libyans with multilateral, non-partisan support from outside.
Conflict and competition in the Middle East and North Africa have become increasingly internationalized in the last decade in countries like Libya, Syria, and Yemen. As violence and divisions erupted in the aftermath of the 2011 uprisings, power vacuums opened up and the international community didn’t show up in a way that would both respect the sovereignty of states in turmoil and support peaceful efforts toward reconciliation.
Instead, many states exploited the power vacuums that ensued to foment conflict and assert their own spheres of influence in strategic regions. Libya’s proxy war exhibits this dangerous shift in the nature of conflict.
States are increasingly able to project hard power and engage in warfare outside of their borders at a relatively lower cost thanks to the use of foreign mercenaries, advanced weapons technology such as drones, and sophisticated propaganda and disinformation campaigns seeking to win the info wars at the state, regional, and international level.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Libya, where regional and great power competition continues to perpetuate division and conflict. Libya’s new Government of National Unity is the most recent effort to unify the country’s divergent political and armed factions under a national umbrella that can organize legitimate elections and maintain some level of political and economic stability that could allow the country to begin the painful recovery out of persistent war. The international community must support this flawed interim government and the December 2021 elections as much as possible. It is the only way forward at the current juncture.
However, this requires better coordination among the Europeans, a larger diplomatic role for the United States, and a roadmap to ensure that the October ceasefire agreement to withdraw all foreign forces from Libya is respected by countries like the UAE, Turkey, and Russia. The United States has especially taken a backseat in diplomacy and conflict resolution in the Middle East and North Africa. Ending the “forever wars” are indeed essential, but U.S. engagement should not be defined so narrowly by troop presence and military intervention.
The Biden administration understands this well and building up US credibility and diplomatic capital seems to be a key foreign policy priority. The Biden administration is understandably focused on domestic affairs, and its foreign policy priorities in the Middle East are focused on the Iran Nuclear Deal, ending the war in Yemen, and the Gulf-Iran-Israel security dilemma. However, conflict in the region is more interconnected than ever, and supporting multilateral diplomatic efforts in Libya should go hand in hand with quelling regional tensions between the Saudi-UAE axis on the one hand and a Turkey, Qatar, and arguably, Iran, axis on the other. These groupings are far from straight forward, but they constitute some of the region’s most impactful fault lines.
The United States has allies on both sides of Libya’s conflict. Turkey is a NATO ally and strategic Gulf partners including UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia support opposing sides to varying degrees, and security council members have directly sabotaged peace efforts—including even the previous U.S. administration.
If the Biden administration is serious about reviewing its relationship with Gulf partners like Saudi Arabia and the UAE, they can’t just focus on Gulf security and the war in Yemen, they need to examine how Gulf states have perpetuated conflict and instability across the entire region, often with the help of U.S weapons, including in Libya.
The Pentagon has already reported that the UAE could be funding Russian mercenaries in Libya, a significant challenge for US-UAE bilateral ties. The US review of its relations with Gulf states should go hand in hand with the Biden administration’s stated goals of supporting human rights and rebuilding international alliances.
For the United States to play a more productive role in mitigating conflict in places like Libya and the wider Middle East and North Africa region, it must fix its damaged international credibility and must repair the Transatlantic Partnership that took such a beating during the Trump administration.
Ten years on, an important lesson we can glean from Libya’s conflict is the continued necessity of multilateral international cooperation and credible US diplomatic engagement if the international community wants to seriously slow down the trend toward greater regional conflict and proxy warfare.