Wiesław LIZAK

The Road To The “Fall” Of Statehood

Libyan state decomposition processes are associated in their genesis with the events of the so-called Arab Spring which led to the collapse of several political regimes in the countries of North Africa and the Middle East.

Anti-government demonstrations began in December 2010 in Tunisia and then spread to other countries in the region. As a result, current political elites were removed from power in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, civil wars broke out in Syria and Yemen and more or less mass anti-government demonstrations were held in other countries of this part of the world.

The developments in Libya were preceded by the resignation from their offices of the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt which had a huge impact on the public opinion in Libya leading to the radicalization of anti-government moods especially in the younger part of the country’s population.

In this context, it is worth remembering that in the economic dimension, in terms of quality and standard of living, the situation in Libya was not bad. Libya was one of the better developed countries of North African in terms of socio-economic indicators with the relatively high standard of living, extensive system of social benefits financed with oil revenues as well as developed and modern economic infrastructure.

It is worth noting that immediately before the outbreak of the uprising in 2011, the country had one of the highest standards of living in Africa and one of the highest indicators of national per capita income, quite well-functioning education and health protection systems (though also benefiting from the imported labour force).

The main driver of social dissatisfaction was the authorities’ authoritarianism preventing the mitigation of existing social tensions. The lack of civil society combined with the efforts to fully control the lives of citizens by the authoritarian authorities and suppressing even the smallest manifestations of opposition activity created the atmosphere conducive to the contestation of the existing political order.

The symbol of the status quo and the ossification of the regime was the then leader of Libya, Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi who, although formally did not hold any official state functions, was the number one of the regime and maintained this position for 42 years (he came to power at the age of just 29 years).

A characteristic feature of al-Qaddafi’s rule was the unpredictability and unconventionality of his behaviour. Original political concepts, exemplified by the content comprised in the Green Book, led to the creation of a specific political system which was based on original solutions and – according to the assumptions of its creator – was to be based on certain forms of self-government combined with elements of direct democracy with strong reference to values such as social justice or basing the country’s development on own resources.

This specificity of the system was to be contained in specific terminology – the concept of Jamahiriya coined by al-Qaddafi was supposed to reflect the uniqueness and specificity of the Libyan development model. Needless to say, behind these slogans lay in fact a local form of authoritarian regime with a strong position of its political creator, leader and ideologist in one person.

The unmasking of the autocratic elements in the political system of Libya, a very long period of colonel al-Qaddafi’s domination and the prospect of family succession as the leader of the state (Sayf al-Qaddafi, was prepared to become his successor) led to progressive delegitimization of the Libyan regime among the inhabitants of the country despite a fairly extensive system of social benefits.

Also in the international dimension, the policy of the al-Qaddafi regime evoked a lot of controversy. Radically anti-Western course in foreign policy led during the Cold War to the deterioration or severance of relations with virtually all countries of the bloc. Libya, during this period, not only continued verbal criticism of “Western imperialism” but it was also involved politically and materially in supporting various forces that could weaken its international position of the West.

This logic led Libya to support various terrorist organizations, especially those which had undertaken spectacular actions, such as the Provisional Irish Republican Army in Great Britain or the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The supply of weapons and explosives to terrorist organizations provided Libya with the label of the main sponsor of international terrorism and Libyan secret service was directly accused of similar actions (such as the attack on discotheque in Berlin in 1986, the above-mentioned attack on the American plane over Lockerbie in 1988 or the attack on an the Air France plane over Niger in 1989.

As a result, the country was subject to international sanctions introduced by the UN Security Council resolution of 1992 which were in force until September 12, 2003 (Libya finally agreed to accept its responsibility for the attacks on planes and paid compensations to the victims which led to the suspension of sanctions in 1999).

Libya’s activities in the international arena were also directed at promoting mechanisms of cooperation with countries that perceived the Cold War international system in a similar way which were engaging in the processes destabilizing and contesting the role of the American power and its allies.

The cooperation with Iran or leftist political regimes in Africa and in the Middle East led to the isolation of Libya on the international forum. The community of interests with the countries of the former Eastern bloc resulting from the rivalry with the West led to the creation of many levels of mutual cooperation although unconventional statements and behaviours of the Libyan leader limited the possibility of allied cooperation, at least on the official level.

The involvement of Libyan authorities in supporting anti-system forces in the Arab states of the region (often under the Pan-Arabic slogans, though filtered through the Libyan interests and specific ideological assumptions promoted by Colonel al-Qaddafi) in that period led to the isolation of the state also in the immediate international environment (which was one of the reasons of the fiasco of the successive initiatives of the Libyan leader aimed at creation of the union of Arab states).

As a consequence of diplomatic failures in the region of North Africa and the Middle East, Libya then reoriented its foreign policy seeking to strengthen its position in relations with Sub-Saharan African countries. The successes of Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi in this field were rather the result of African leaders’ interest in Libyan economic aid (during the oil boom play Libya had budget surpluses at disposal) than real interest in the cooperation model promoted by the Libyan authorities.

Libya at that time tried to “punch above its own weight” on the international forum achieving rather limited results. However, it built a negative image of the country among the main actors in the framework of the then international order leading, as a consequence, to limiting its ability to achieve foreign policy goals. Therefore, after the end of the Cold War, Libya undertook certain measures to change the existing image and normalize relations with the Western powers and proWestern states in its international environment.

The most spectacular proof of this stance was the consent of Tripoli to refrain from further development of the potential of mass destruction weapons (chemical and nuclear weapons) as well as the consent to submit its arsenals to the system of control.

Economic needs have also led to gradual normalization of relations with European countries that are the main recipients of energy resources exported by Libya (Italy and France were particularly interested in developing cooperation in the oil sector). Nevertheless, despite the desire to change the international image, Libya remained the state of “limited reliability” – and this should be probably perceived as one of the reasons for the decision of the Western powers to support the opposition forces after the outbreak of the anti-regime uprising during the Arab Spring.

The outbreak of the anti-government riots in Libya took place in March 2011. The success of anti-government insurgencies in neighbouring countries gave a strong impulse to Libyans dissatisfied with the existing socio-political and economic conditions. Hopes for the change of the authoritarian regime led thousands of protesters to the streets. At the same time, it launched the opposite process of mobilizing pro-government forces to defend status quo.

Aware of the experiences of neighbouring countries, Colonel al-Qaddafi did not want to risk losing his power (attempts to make concessions or compromises seemed only a way to strengthen the demands of the opposition and could be interpreted as a weakness). Consequently, the situation escalated to the conflict in which the government side decided to use the full arsenal of forces and resources being at its disposal. The riots turned into an internal conflict in which the opposition side, as deprived of the access to arsenals of weapons, seemed doomed to failure.

The prospect of victory of the forces faithful to al-Qaddafi’s, however, prompted Western countries to launch the military intervention. Formal pretext, formulated on the international forum, were humanitarian issues, nevertheless the fact that Libya is an oil state gave rise to additional speculations about the real motives of the intervention forces (especially as the initiator of the venture was France, subsequently supported by Italy and the United Kingdom – that is the states economically involved in Libya).

The adoption by the UN Security Council of the resolution banning military flights in Libyan air space combined with the activities of the regime forces – including aviation – gave the pretext to launch an international intervention which in fact supported Libyan opposition. The coalition of Western countries which took the initiative decided to transfer the coordination of operations to the North Atlantic Alliance (Operation Unified Protector). International intervention has reversed the fate of the conflict.

Air support has made it possible to the anti-government forces to gain advantage also in ground operations. As a result, the regime of Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi was overthrown and the dictator died in fighting, brutally murdered by partisans on October 20, 2011. This started the new stage in the history of the Libya.


Wiesław Lizak – University of Warsaw


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