Wiesław LIZAK


The developments of the Arab Spring of 2011 extended, among others, to Libya. As a consequence of the armed anti-government uprising supported militarily by the air forces of the Western powers (under the auspices of NATO), the regime of Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi, who has controlled the state since the 1969 military coup, was overthrown.

The collapse of the current regime has initiated the path to the social, political and economic transformation of the Libyan state. However, the rivalry of local political forces which is a reflection of tribal, regional and ideological divisions, prevented the emergence of an effective political system.

As a result, Libya has evolved into a dysfunctional state and the processes of internal destabilization and lack of state borders control generate threats also for the international environment of the country (West Africa, East Africa, Europe).

The developments of the so-called Arab Spring have brought significant political changes to many countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Despite the expectations of democratization and socio-economic reforms, as a consequence of the mass anti-government insurgences, in most countries affected by this process their effects proved to be far from expected.

The social energy released in the process of contesting the existing political order turned out to be insufficient to give to the processes of changes following the fall of political regimes the political vectors aimed at increasing political liberties and economic freedom.

Apart from Tunisia, where the transformation of 2011 has so far resulted in the democratization of the system and the liberalization of political life, in other states where previous regimes have been subjected to contestation the authoritarian regime has been restored (Egypt) or anarchization of the political system lead to the civil war and/or dysfunctionality of the state.

Libya constitutes an example of such developments, as following the overthrow of Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime it failed to create stable structures of political power and the country gradually plunged into conflict fuelled both by internal contradictions underlying the rivalry of various political-military forces and external influences of regional and non-regional actors pursuing their own strategic interests in this part of the world.

Prerequisites Of Libya’s Dysfunctionality

Libya has the location of strategic importance – located in the northern part of the African continent at the Mediterranean Sea, it has a relatively long coastline (1775 km), which both in the past and today has attracted the interest of the superpowers seeking to control the Mediterranean Sea and adjoining areas.

The mild Mediterranean climate and good conditions for colonization in the coastal area since antiquity attracted consecutive waves of conquerors and settlers – from the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, through Arabs and Turks, to the Italians in the modern era.

Libya, however, was not a separate geopolitical entity in the past but rather constituted the part of larger empires that extended their rule over the neighbouring territories. The name of the country comes from the ancient inhabitants of this land, referred to by the Greek with the term Libue (Libyans) – they were a part of the Berber communities inhabiting North Africa since prehistoric times.

The inhabitants of this land were also called similarly by ancient Egyptians and Romans. The name ‘Libya’ appeared in contemporary times on the world map only in the twentieth century along with the change of the legal status of these territories.

In 1912, as a result of the Italian-Turkish war (1911-1912), two coastal provinces of the Ottoman Empire – Tripolitania (western part of the country) and Cyrenaica (eastern part) – were united within the new territorial unit becoming Italian colony. The third province of the country became, Saharan and almost uninhabited, Fezzan.

Officially, since 1934, these three territories were united within one geopolitical entity called Libya, although the name itself had appeared in the area before. De facto (along with the transformation of Morocco into a French and Spanish protectorate in the same year), this ended the process of dividing Africa by the European colonial powers.

The establishment of Italian domination over Libya became an impulse for the birth of the resistance movement. For more than twenty years (until 1935) the struggle for the liberation of the country from the colonial system (mainly in the area of Cyrenaica) was conducted by the partisans (mujahedin) under the command of Umar al-Mukhtar, who – after being captured in combat and sentenced by Italians to death in 1931 – became a national hero and a symbol of the national liberation struggle.

Libya remained under the Italian administration until 1943 when it was taken over by British troops as a result of the wartime allied offensive. Formally, the authorities in Rome waived all claims to this territory in the peace treaty concluded with the victorious allied states in 1947.

During the transition period the administration over the country was held by Great Britain (provinces of Tripoli and Cyrenaica) and France (south-western province of Fezzan). At the same time, it was a period of activation of local political forces striving for the political emancipation of the country.

The question of the future of Libya was the subject of negotiations of the victorious Allied Powers. In the absence of an agreement among them regarding the future international legal status (in accordance with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations, territories detached from the defeated countries should be included in the UN trust system) ultimately it was decided to grant Libya full independence. Finally, on December 24, 1951 Libya was proclaimed an independent state as a monarchy. Its first (and as it later turned out also the last) ruler was King Idris I (As-Sajjid Muhammad Idris al-Mahdi asSanusi).

He originated from the religious-social movement with Sufi tint called Sanusijja, whose founder (in the 1830s) was the grandfather of the future ruler, Muhammad Ibn Ali as-Sanusi. This movement played a very important role in the history of the country, being one of the birth factors of local nationalism with a strong anti-colonial tinge and the later ruler, Idris, was a de facto inter-war period (while in emigration in Egypt) ideological political leader of the anti-colonial insurrection (Umar al-Mukhtar was the military leader of Sanusijja).

Libya is a country with large territory (about 1.75 million square kilometres) but the vast majority of its area is a desert (about 93% of the area). Only the coastal areas of Libya ensure convenient conditions for their inhabitants. The Mediterranean climate and soils, suitable in some areas for the development of agriculture, make the vast majority of the 6.5 million citizens of the country live there.

The dry tropical climate in the interior entails extreme temperatures.10 Desert areas are characterized by permanent water deficit but also in coastal areas the amount of water available for economic purposes is limited (a characteristic feature of the landscape of these area is the lack of permanent rivers).

In Libya, however, there are huge reservoirs of underground water (in the area of the Sahara) which constitute about 70% of the country’s water resources and are exploited for the needs of coastal cities by supplying them through the water supply system. Unpopulated and inhospitable areas of the interior were in the past and are now a difficult place to control and, as a result, may constitute a shelter for various forces contesting the existing political order.

In the absence of effective central authority this factor becomes even more important. At the same time, communication routes leading to the Sub-Saharan Africa countries go through the interior.

Their control is therefore of strategic importance for the stability of the entire region, especially the areas neighbouring Libya in the south and south-east (Sudan, Chad, Niger – these countries are perceived as highly unstable).

To some extent, this also applies to the eastern and western neighbours of the country – Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria.12 These Arabic-speaking countries lie in similar geographical latitudes, which makes them similar in terms of climatic and landscape factors and makes their borders (especially in the Sahara) difficult to control and thus easy to penetrate (in all directions).

The abovementioned feature of the borders in the region has become even more meaningful in connection with the rapid development of means of communication in the twentieth century.


Wiesław Lizak – University of Warsaw


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