Libya: Five years after Gaddafi

Why has it been so difficult for the North African nation to stabilise itself following the death of its long time leader Muammar Gaddafi?

Photo by: AFP
Photo by: AFP

Libya is fighting both internal and external forces, in an attempt to gain stability in a post Gaddafi-era.

Updated Nov 9, 2016

The spark that started it all

Libya’s first civil war began in 2011 with an arrest. Decades-long frustration came to a head when  Fethi Tarbel, a prominent human rights lawyer and former political prisoner was taken into government custody. Inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, protesters took to the streets of the eastern city of Benghazi, to demonstrate against the arrest and to demand an end to 42 long-years under Muammar Gaddafi’s autocratic rule. The government responded with deadly force, resulting in a series of battles. This culminated with the fall of the North African nation’s capital Tripoli to armed rebels and Gaddafi fled to his home city of Sirte.

The end of an era

On October 11 2011, with air support from NATO, Gaddafi was brutally killed in the streets of Sirte, signaling the end of Libya’s first civil war. It didn’t mean an end thought, to the troubles facing the nation. In many ways, it was just the beginning of an entirely new conflict, as new power struggles began. These struggles were multifaceted: tribal, regional and political.

The Benghazi attacks  

Many of the rebel groups and militias that fought against Gaddafi’s forces refused to disband, leading to a climate of tension and instability. Civil society figures — activists, lawyers, teachers — who were trying to build a new political system in Benghazi faced an assassination campaign, as did security forces. Things came to a head on September 11 2012 when a group calling itself Ansar al-Sharia orchestrated two coordinated attacks on the US diplomatic compound and a nearby CIA building, both in Benghazi. John Christopher Stevens, the US Ambassador at the time, and three others died. The result was a near all out war against the militias.Ansar al-Sharia orchestrated two coordinated attacks on the US diplomatic compound and a nearby CIA building, both in Benghazi. John Christopher Stevens, the US Ambassador at the time, and three others died. The result was a near all out war against the militias.

Contested elections

Libya’s first post-Gaddafi parliamentary elections were supposed to mark a milestone in the nation’s path to stability. Instead, Libya was fractured further, after liberal and nationalist politicians won a majority of the seats. The elections themselves only attracted a small percentage of the nation’s voters, as fear of attacks caused many people to stay at home on election day. Many citizens complained about the insecurity they felt, as they claimed the international community deserted them after Gaddafi’s fall. US President Barack Obama even later admitted that the biggest mistake of his presidency was not planning for a post-Gaddafi era in Libya. “[Worst mistake was] probably failing to plan for the day after what I think was the right thing to do in intervening in Libya”. Obama told the American broadcaster Fox News in April 2016.  

The second civil war begins 

An alliance of armed militias called Libya Dawn took Tripoli in a power grab, following the 2014 elections. Many were from the powerful port city of Misrata. The country was left with two disputed governments. The General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli had been elected in July 2012 and refused to step down even though its term was over. The newly elected UN-backed Tobruk government took refuge in the east.

A liquid economy in turmoil 

The country runs on oil. Its largest refineries are under the control of General Khalifa Haftar, who leads the Libyan National Army and is allied with the Tobruk government. After years of instability, the rate of oil production has recently been climbing and is about half the pre-crisis level.

The battle for Benghazi

The city is a hollowed-out ruin of its former glory. General Hafter launched “Operation Dignity” in May 2014 with broad support from tribal leaders in the east. He was backed by Egypt, the UAE and even some Gaddafi loyalists in a fierce battle against militias aligned with Libya Dawn and other Misrati forces who are backed by Qatar and Turkey.  Haftar’s forces, with the aid of British, French, and United States military advisors, have made some progress in Benghazi, but it’s a difficult war that has claimed the lives countless civilians. Benghazi was spared from much of the destruction which plagued the country's first civil war, but since 2014 it has been nearly destroyed.

No escape

The people of Libya are still suffering tremendously throughout the fractured nation. Within the Ganfouda neighbourhood of Benghazi, residents simply can’t leave. Haftar’s forces have held siege on the area, battling against what he claims is a Daesh stronghold, while mostly targeting forces allied with Libya Dawn. "The children look like skin and bones because of the lack of food and poor nutrition. If they could just drop us some food for the children or get them out of here, even if that meant leaving the rest of us, that would be fine," a trapped civilian told Amnesty International in September 2016

A Daesh stronghold

Meanwhile, Daesh has taken advantage of a power vacuum created by the in-fighting and took control of strategic coastal towns, such as Sirte in the west, and Derna in the east. The eastern port city is of Derna is just one front of the multi-sided conflict in Libya. It was held by Daesh for 2014 and most of 2015, before rival militias pushed the terror group out of the city. Another front against Daesh is taking place in Sirte, where months-long fighting is expected to see the expulsion of the group. Many libyans questioned why Haftar’s forces seemed to avoid retaking the Daesh stronghold in Derna, while he relentlessly targeted other factions aligned with the GNC in the nearby city of Benghazi.

Launchpad to Europe

Refugees from all over Africa, and even some from Syria travel to Libya’s north coast, hoping to catch a smugglers boat heading for Italy. Migration rates have gone up 400 percent since 2014 and in times of clear weather, thousands may take the life-threatening journey each day. In May, the United Nations refugee agency released a report saying that at least 2500 people had died making the journey from Libya. Migrants are also at the mercy of the militias, who sometimes kidnap groups of refugees and demand ransom for their release.

TRTWorld and agencies