In October 2011, after an increasingly eccentric and dictatorial rule lasting 42 years, Muammar al-Qaddafi, leader of the grandiosely named Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, was captured and killed by exultant Libyan rebels. In the ensuing years, the State of Libya – as the country is now simply named – has endured a continuing civil war and disintegrated into a failed state divided by regional and tribal loyalties: elections in 2014 led to two rival parliaments and two rival governments, with neither able to control well-armed militias, both secular and Islamist.
None of this conforms to the optimists’ forecast that the Arab spring that blossomed in Tunisia in December 2010 would lead to a stable, pluralistic democracy in neighbouring Libya. The effort to remove Qaddafi began with an uprising in February 2011 in Benghazi, the main city in the eastern region of Cyrenaica, and within days the unrest had spread west to Tripolitania and the capital, Tripoli. However, in early March the regime’s armed forces – roughly 76,000 at their height – struck back, threatening a humanitarian disaster for the rebels and the population of Benghazi. That prospect led to a UN Security Council resolution on March 17th by a vote of 10–0 (Russia, China and Germany were among five abstentions) to authorise a no-fly zone and aerial strikes to protect civilians. This was followed two days later by an air campaign and naval blockade, initially featuring France, the UK and the US (where one official declared it was “leading from behind”). Soon, though, outside powers were acting under a NATO umbrella and expanding into a coalition with almost a score of nations, including Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Qaddafi enlisted Tuareg tribesmen from Mali and several hundred mercenaries from Europe and South Africa, and also pressed migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa into his forces, but to no avail. By July 2011 the International Contact Group on Libya, representing governments from both the West and the Arab world, had recognised the National Transitional Council (NTC) as the legitimate government of Libya. By August Qaddafi had fled Tripoli, and by September the African Union, which had originally opposed regime change, also recognised the NTC. On October 20th 2011 Qaddafi was dragged out of a drainage pipe near the coastal town of Sirte and summarily shot (according to some rumours by a French spy who had infiltrated the rebel side and wanted to stop any subsequent revelations of Qaddafi’s dealings with the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy). The following month, Qaddafi’s favourite son and presumed heir, Saif al-Islam, was captured, marking the complete demise of the Qaddafi clan.
Yet with clashes breaking out in Benghazi in January 2012 between rival groups of the former rebels, the NTC quickly proved inadequate to the challenge of stabilising post-Qaddafi Libya. One reason is the enduring imprint of the Qaddafi years. The “Brother Colonel” seized power at the age of just 27 on September 1st 1969 in a bloodless coup against King Idris, leader of the important Senussi tribe and monarch since Libya (a former Italian colony) attained its independence in 1951.
At first the Qaddafi regime was popular: Italian properties were nationalised and the UK was ordered to evacuate its military base in Tobruk and the US its Wheelus airbase in Tripoli. The growing oil revenues from a vast country with a small population (today numbering around 6.2 million, almost all of them Sunni Muslims) were distributed to allow housing, health and education for all.
In retrospect one mistake was Qaddafi’s version of popular democracy, explained in his 1975 Green Book (an obvious allusion to Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book). This “third universal theory” of political and social organisation, first outlined by Qaddafi in 1973, involved the creation of around 2,000 people’s committees, whose decisions would be passed upwards to a General People’s Congress. In practice, this local democracy was strictly controlled by the establishment in 1977 of revolutionary committees. In other words, within less than a decade revolutionary Libya had become more or less a dictatorship, with the population monitored by an extraordinary number of secret police. In such conditions, dissent was bound to build under the surface – not least because, much to the chagrin of a potentially prosperous middle class, Libyans were forbidden to own more than one house in the Jamahiriya, a neologism coined by Qaddafi to mean state of the masses (the usual jumhuriyya means simply republic).
A second mistake was Qaddafi’s foreign-policy adventurism. This included abortive efforts in the early 1970s to create an Arab federation with Egypt and Syria; the military occupation of part of Chad in 1973; an impractical Arab Maghreb Union with Morocco, Mauritania, Algeria and Tunisia in 1989; and, with his pan-Arabism having failed, an attempt at the end of the 20th century to make Libya the leader of pan-Africanism (Libya was a founder in 2001 of the African Union). Meanwhile, Libya had become an enthusiastic supporter, often with both money and arms, of dissident movements around the world, from the IRA in the UK’s Northern Ireland to Muslim separatists in the Philippines and Thailand.
The result was that by the 1980s Qaddafi had become an international pariah. In the view of the US president, Ronald Reagan, in 1986, the Libyan leader was “the mad dog of the Middle East” seeking “world revolution, Moslem fundamentalist revolution, which is targeted on many of his own Arab compatriots” (though, in fact, Qaddafi was never a religious zealot and opposed Islamic extremism). The tensions with the US were reflected in 1981 by the shooting down by American fighter jets of two Libyan aircraft over the Gulf of Sirte, which Libya claimed as its territorial waters, and by the bombing – allegedly by Libyan agents – of a Berlin discotheque in 1986 frequented by American servicemen. The discotheque bombing precipitated US air strikes on Libyan military targets in Tripoli and Benghazi, and also on Qaddafi’s own home. The bombardment killed 101 people, including an adopted daughter of Qaddafi (in the wake of the bombing, Qaddafi decided to add the prefix “Great” to the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya).
Relations with the UK were equally sour. In 1984 the UK cut diplomatic ties with Libya after a shot fired from the Libyan embassy in London during an anti-Qaddafi demonstration killed a young policewoman, Yvonne Fletcher. Then in December 1988 a Pan Am flight en route from Germany to the United States was blown up over the Scottish town of Lockerbie. The UK and the US blamed Libya for the 270 deaths (though a credible alternative theory blames Iran, seeking to retaliate for the US shooting down of an Iranian airliner in July 1988).
The Lockerbie disaster led to economic sanctions by the UN to force Libya to hand two suspects to a Netherlands court for trial under Scottish law. Libya complied in 1999, leading to the suspension of the sanctions, the restoration of diplomatic ties with the UK and the beginning of Qaddafi’s rehabilitation. By 2003 Libya had agreed to accept responsibility and pay $2.7 billion in compensation for the Lockerbie bombing, and in January 2004 Libya also agreed compensation for the 1989 bombing of a French airliner over the Sahara. Most important, to regain international respectability, was Qaddafi’s decision in December 2003 to stop Libya’s production, real or planned, of chemical and biological weapons and abandon its quest for nuclear weapons. The welcome back into the international fold was sealed in March 2004 with a visit to Libya and a public hug for Qaddafi by the British prime minister, Tony Blair.
The Qaddafi era lasted for four decades because the regime – helped by ample oil revenues – was able to suppress Libya’s underlying regional and tribal identities. The country has more than 130 tribes, representing the indigenous Berbers, the Arabs who arrived by conquest in the 7th century and black Africans in the south. Of the 30 or so important tribes, Qaddafi himself was from the relatively less powerful Qaddafda tribe; Abdul-Salam Jalloud, his second-in-command for two decades, was from the much more powerful Magarha tribe, which joined the Warfalla, the country’s largest tribe, in a failed uprising against the regime in 1993. Once the Arab spring reached Libya, with popular protests first in Benghazi, tribal differences – often sparked by arguments over the regime’s power of patronage to allocate jobs and military positions – were bound to assert themselves.
In a country awash with arms wielded by hundreds of militia groups, the result has been continuing internecine chaos. In August 2012 the NTC handed power to the newly elected General National Congress, charged with drawing up a new constitution and preparing for the 2014 elections for a Council of Deputies. But almost immediately the country was scarred by sectarianism, with Islamist groups destroying Sufi shrines. Then, in September 2012, Islamist militants – apparently from Ansar al-Sharia (Supporters of Islamic Law), a Salafist group linked with al-Qaeda – attacked the US consulate in Benghazi, killing the ambassador and three other Americans. Political turmoil was such that in 2014 Abdullah al-Thani, serving briefly as prime minister, toyed with the idea of inviting the monarchy back. When secular and liberal parties did well in the 2014 elections, Islamists in the General National Congress refused to recognise the Council of Deputies and instead announced the New General National Congress, establishing its headquarters in Tripoli and forcing the new parliament and government (which retained their international recognition) to take refuge in the eastern city of Tobruk.
Will the chaos eventually give way to stability and unity? In the summer of 2015 the country was being fought over by four main groups. In Tobruk, the Council of Deputies, internationally accepted as the legitimate government, had the support of the Libyan Army (now renamed the Libyan National Army) under the secular General Khalifa Haftar, who had taken part in the coup that brought Qaddafi to power but had later conspired against him (and had been given asylum in the United States). In Tripoli, the New General National Congress is an Islamist coalition, ranging from the moderate Muslim Brotherhood (backed by Qatar and Turkey) to the extremist Libya Dawn (Fajr Libya), an umbrella organisation for many more extreme groups (Libya Dawn denounces terrorism but maintains links with Ansar al-Sharia). Benghazi is the stronghold of Ansar al-Sharia, as part of the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries. The port of Derna, near Benghazi, was captured in late 2014 by militants who declared their allegiance to the Islamic State and its self-proclaimed caliph (and founder of ISIS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In February 2015 this “Islamic State in Libya” beheaded 20 Coptic Christians from Egypt, provoking an immediate strike on Derna by Egypt’s air force.
But these groups only have partial sway. Virtually every town has its militia, operating sometimes independently and sometimes under the umbrella of coalitions such as Libya Dawn. The prize for all is to profit from Libya’s oil exports, which have plummeted from the Qaddafi-era level of 1.6 million barrels a day. Conceivably the Libyan National Army, with support from Egypt, will be able to dominate Cyrenaica and then move west along the coast. But the odds are long. Meanwhile, there are much shorter odds on the ability of Islamic State militants to create havoc, not just in Libya but – as was shown by the murderous attacks on foreign tourists at a Tunis museum in March 2015 and on a Tunisian beach in June 2015 – beyond its borders.