Is There a Center to Hold?
After accepting responsibility—but not culpability—for the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, Muammar Qaddafi was received back into the international community in 2003.
Libya paid compensation to the families of the 270 victims of the bombing, and sanctions were lifted against Libya as diplomatic relations were restored. Libya ‘‘bought peace,’’ and the West was assured of open access to oil.
Fewer than ten years later, Qaddafi was overthrown in an uprising that received vast military support from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Found hiding in a drain, Qaddafi was assaulted and then killed. His body was buried in an unmarked grave somewhere in the Libyan Desert.
Today, Libya is in disarray. Islamist militias have taken over the nation’s capital and captured the international airport in Tripoli. The elected Libyan government has fled from Tripoli to Tobruk, a third-choice city given control of Benghazi by Islamist militias.
The Tripoli-based Islamists have set up their own parliament, such that the country now exists with two parallel government structures. These competing centers of power agreed to hold UN-facilitated talks in late September 2014; soon thereafter, militias in Tripoli rejected calls for a cease-fire that emerged from the discussions. The outcome remains to be seen.
Clearly, Libya faces immense challenges. Politically motivated armed conflict between Islamists and secularists and their respective militias, as well as growing lawlessness, have contributed to increasing criminal violence.
Foreign interests and a readiness to pursue them in Libya add extra layers of complexity to an already convoluted transition, while armed groups benefiting from a flood of heavy weaponry compete for internal power. This begs the question: Whither Libya?
Legacies of Deep Division
Libya’s divisions are not new. Colonialism, manipulation, and deprivation induced by foreign powers have a long history in what is today known as Libya. The country is split into three historic regions: Tripolitania in the northwest, Fezzan in the southwest, and Cyrenaica in the east.
Attempting to unite these regions into a single state was a slow process, the bulk of which took place in the period from 1942 to 1951. During this time, the French ruled Fezzan while the British ruled Tripolitania and Cyrenaica.
After a tumultuous period of political indecision, the allied forces of World War II united the three regions into one country, which became independent in 1951. Idris al-Senussi, head of the Senussi Sufi order, was installed as king; he thanked his benefactors with gifts of land, influence, and oil (after its discovery in the late 1950s). Wealth remained concentrated in the uppermost echelons of Libyan society.
Enter Muammar Qaddafi. Inspired by a coup d’état in Egypt led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, Qaddafi and his fellow Free Officers executed a peaceful coup in 1969, establishing the Libyan Arab Republic. He consolidated his power through a cultural revolution in 1973—the Jamahiriya, or state of the masses—and proclaimed the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in 1977.
While this masqueraded as a form of direct democracy that was free of political parties and that reflected the country’s tribal divisions, it gave Qaddafi near total control. Qaddafi pitted tribes against one another, made the armed services subservient to his personal needs, and imprisoned or exiled those who opposed him. Based on his reading of the Qur’an, he rejected both capitalism and communism.
At the same time, he developed extravagant manifestations of his Bedouin roots as well as an initial vision of pan-Arab unity. Despite Qaddafi’s authoritarian rule, Libyan opposition could not be silenced.
From the mid-1980s onward, Qaddafi made some political concessions by restraining the power of the revolutionary committees he had established. He also yielded to demands for reform in the economy and allowed for modest private trade under the direction of his son Saif al-Qaddafi, a process that further enriched the Tripoli-based elite.
Building on the December 2010 uprisings in Tunisia, Libyan opposition to Qaddafi intensified, leading to open rebellion in February 2011. Rebels received arms via ancient smuggling routes. In mid-March 2011, NATO initiated airstrikes to support the rebel cause. Qaddafi was killed in October 2011.
The National Transitional Council (NTC), the political face of the transition, gained international recognition before handing over power to the General National Congress
(GNC) through elections in July 2012. Multiple civil society organizations emerged to take part in the political process upon Qaddafi’s death. However, the collapse of Qaddafi’s authoritarian state resulted in the disintegration of government institutions. This escalated distrust and suspicion between opposing groups as they fought to benefit from Qaddafi’s demise.
Security became a major concern, leading the NTC and then the GNC to limit civil society activities. Armed groups proliferated, and attacks on both Libyan and international officials became commonplace. Though voices in Libya and beyond called for an inclusive national dialogue that reached across tribal, ideological, and class interests, such moderate viewpoints have been sidelined. At best, today Libya remains in a transition to a transition.
The Libyan Revolution
Dominant Arab Gulf States as well as the West, both of which played a major role in Qaddafi’s exit, continue to be factors in the post-Qaddafi period. NATO and its allies underestimated the extent of Libyan sectarianism at the time of their 2011 intervention.
Opposition to Qaddafi’s rule was deep-seated, resulting in everyday Libyan people in both urban and rural areas as well as organized rebel groups taking to the streets in 2011. Reports also indicate that the CIA and Britain’s MI6 were involved in supporting the Libyan uprising.
Rebel groups also alleged that Qaddafi’s troops had attacked unarmed civilians, which contributed to a situation that was interpreted as a justification for intervention. Alternate, nonviolent peace proposals forwarded by the International Crisis Group and the African Union (AU) called for negotiations and an immediate cease-fire, but leaders in Washington, Paris, and London brushed these aside.
All of this contributed to Qaddafi’s Libya becoming the latest victim in the Western tradition of eliminating unfriendly regimes around the world. NATO strikes and a no-fly zone were the order of the day, supported by Saudi Arabia and other powerful Gulf States.
NATO’s priority was regime change. Allegedly, this resulted in NATO pilots and strike commanders ignoring rebel requests for support in rural areas, preferring to focus their attention on the infrastructure on which Qaddafi depended to remain in power.
After Qaddafi was eliminated, direct military support was withdrawn and limited support for the reconstruction process was offered, leaving the NTC to deal with rebel forces. The West had learned its twenty-first-century lesson in interventionism the hard way in Iraq and was not about to repeat the mistake of a lengthy and costly restoration process. In the words of historian Hugh Roberts, ‘‘shadow play’’ limited Western liability.
Libya’s developing political structures reflect the country’s deep divisions and fractures that had been held together by Qaddafi’s strong hand; these fissures were not taken into account. NATO bombs were insufficient to establish a friendly regime in Libya or to create a context within which former enemies could develop a reconstructive environment. This placed the NTC and GNC in a power vacuum, the very situation that the AU’s peace proposal sought to avoid.
These circumstances serve Western elites and wealthy Gulf States in economic terms. With Qaddafi gone and the GNC on its way to disarray, economic and political interest groups are free to manipulate the country. As is discussed below, foreign oil companies increase their influence on Libya’s future through funding and other forms of support for a cash-strapped and dependent government.
All of this leads to a question: To what extent was Libya’s uprising a foreign intervention rather than a national revolution?
Indigenous rebel forces were and are an inherent part of the continuing unrest in Libya, while the manipulation of the original uprising by outside forces has opened the door for foreign powers to reap the benefits.
Whether from NATO, foreign intelligence sources, or politicians in far-off cities, interventions to refashion Libya have conspired to make it dependent on NATO countries and their allies.