Hey, Whatever Happened to Libya?

by Benjamin Studebaker

As the United States once again intervenes militarily in a Middle Eastern civil war (this time in Syria and Iraq), I am reminded of the 2011 western intervention into the Libyan Civil War. Remember three years ago when the western states decided to help Libyan rebels overthrow Muammar Gaddafi’s government? We almost never hear anything about what’s going on in Libya these days. What happened there? 2011 was about a year before I started up this blog, but I remember being vitriolically opposed to the intervention there. How did it turn out? Let’s investigate.

To start with, we should refresh our memories of Libyan history. Before the civil war, Libya was ruled by Muammar Gaddafi. Remember him?

Gaddafi took over the country in 1969 in a revolution, deposing King Idris. Idris unified the Kingdom of Libya in 1951 from his power base in the east in the old Emirate of Cyrenaica.  Prior to this, Libya had only been unified under conquerors, and there were quite a few them–Carthaginians, Romans, Rashiduns, Umayyads, Abbasids, Fatimids, Ayyubids, Ottomans, Italians, and finally the allied powers. Under the kingdom, Libya found itself with the same core problem that Iraq and Syria now have–it was a sectarian society. Oil was discovered in in Libya in 1959. Because Idris’ power came from his supporters in the east, Idris necessarily favored Cyrenaica and especially his tribe (the Senussi) at the expense of the rest of the country. To maintain power, Idris had to satisfy his supporters, but in so doing he undermined his own efforts to create a profound sense of Libyan nationalism. His dealings with the increasingly unpopular western powers (particularly the US and Britain) only served to further alienate him from western Libyans. This opened the door to Gaddafi’s 1969 coup.

Under Gaddafi, Libya’s oil wealth was more widely shared. Gaddafi nationalized the holdings of foreign oil companies, and created the “Jamahiriya”, in which Libyan companies became collectively run and wealthy elites were dispossessed. The Cyrenaicans who had prospered under the king resented these policies and endemically fomented plots against the regime. Gaddafi responded to these plots with harshness, criminalizing dissent and imprisoning and killing those suspected of acting against the state.

That said, Gaddafi’s rule was not without its benefits. Between 1970 and 1985, the number of doctors increased seven-fold, and between 1985 and 2004, the infant mortality rate was cut by 69%. Literacy improved from just over 50% in the 1980’s to over 80% by the mid-2000’s. Gaddafi provided for universal healthcare and universal public education. Under Gaddafi, Libya eventually came to maintain the highest per capita GDP in Africa, despite years of western sanctions.

Why was the west imposing sanctions? The west was hostile to Gaddafi from the start, when he nationalized Libya’s oil resources. Gaddafi was deeply fearful of an alliance between his domestic political enemies and the west. He attempted to head off this possibility by behaving with spectacular belligerence, ordering the infamous Lockerbie bombing and developing nuclear weapons in the 1980’s. Over the course of the 1990’s, western sanctions really began to bite–Gaddafi was unable to generate substantive economic growth, and the country’s economy was worse off in the early 00’s than it had been at the start of the decade:

Gaddafi recognized that weak economic growth would undermine his government not merely with Cyrenaicans but with Libyans all over the country, and that radical Islam was beginning to fill the ideological vacuum. He also saw what happened to Saddam Hussein’s government during the Iraq War and decided that his pursuit of nuclear weapons was not making him substantively more secure. So he decided to do an about face–he gave up his nuclear weapons and the west dropped the sanctions. In the years that followed, Libya’s economy soared like an eagle, dwarfing its 90’s performance:

But Gaddafi’s domestic foes remained discontented. The Cyrenaicans still felt they were getting a raw deal and were embittered by Gaddafi’s repression. At the same time, many young Libyans took inspiration from radical Islam and did not identify with the secular Jamahiriya. These Libyans viewed Gaddafi’s rapprochement with the west as a betrayal of Islamic values. In the wake of the global economic crisis, Libya was shaken by a plunge in oil prices:

GDP fell by about a third, and by 2011 it had yet to fully recover:

It was in this climate that discontent against many of the secular and/or sectarian governments in the Middle East boiled over–the famed “Arab Spring”. Both the Cyrenaicans and the radicals saw this as an opportunity to get rid of Gaddafi and create a new government that would favor them. They rebelled against Gaddafi, but many Libyans– particularly those living in the west who feared rule by the Cyrenaican tribes–remained loyal to Gaddafi. The military continued to fight for him, and Gaddafi’s armed forces were on track to crush the rebellion. The National Transitional Council (NTC) was set up to act as the political face of the Libyan Revolution to the world. The NTC claimed to be pro-democracy and pro-liberalism, and it succeeded in convincing the western states to help it eliminate Gaddafi. From the regime’s perspective, this was a betrayal of the disarmament agreement Gaddafi reached with the west in 2004. Nevertheless, NATO went on to intervene, claiming to be instituting a no fly zone to prevent Gaddafi’s air force from bombing civilian population centers. In reality the west targeted Gaddafi’s ground forces and Gaddafi himself. Eventually, Gaddafi was captured by rebel forces and executed without trial:

For most people in the west, the story ends there. Media coverage of the events in Libya since then has been scant. What has happened since 2011?

Right from the start there seems to have been inherent tensions between the pro-western liberals, whose power base is in Cyrenaica, and the Islamists, who flourish in the west near Libya’s capital, Tripoli.

In 2012, the NTC transferred power to the General National Congress (GNC), a democratically elected body. The elections were won by radicals, who began attempting to implement traditional Sharia in Libya. They oppressed the secularists and this past January voted to extend their own terms without holding new elections. The liberals rallied to General Khalifa Haftar, who condemned this action.

Haftar is an interesting fellow–of Cyrenaican origin, Haftar had been a general under Gaddafi during Libya’s war with Chad in the 1980’s. Haftar was captured by the Chadians and repudiated by Gaddafi. Whether due to personal enmity or due to the east-west sectarian antagonism, Haftar decided to participate in a mid-90’s Cyrenaican rebellion against Gaddafi (possibly with CIA training). It was ultimately unsuccessful, and he fled to the United States and gained asylum. Haftar returned to Libya in 2011. He took a stand against the GNC, claiming the GNC to be illegitimate. His forces began attacking the government from his stronghold in Tobruk, in the far east of Libya, calling this “Operation Dignity”.

The GNC decided to hold new elections for a new Libyan “council of deputies”. Only 18% of the electorate participated and the Islamists lost badly. The Islamists denied the legitimacy of this election and claimed that the GNC remains the legitimate government, while the secularists uphold the election and claim the council to be legitimate.

The Islamists have counterattacked with their own offensive called “Operation Dawn”, seizing Tripoli, the capital. The Islamists also gained control over Benghazi. The council of deputies has located itself in Haftar’s stronghold in Tobruk.

It is unclear what the result will be in the long-term, but at the moment the country appears firmly in the grip of another round of civil war. The conflict is fueled by foreign support–Egypt and the UAE are backing the secularists (unsurprising, given Egyptian President al-Sissi’s deep hostility to Islamists), while Qatar, Turkey, and Sudan are backing the Islamists.

Meanwhile, in 2013 militants armed with western weapons acquired in 2011 spilled into Mali, triggering a civil war in that country. I wrote about this at the time–the French ultimately intervened to throw the militants back into Libya, where they are now fighting Haftar’s people.

All of this has not be especially good for the welfare of the Libyan people. Libya’s per capita GDP is a pale shadow of what it was under Gaddafi:

Nor has this series of events made the Libyan people safer. While Gaddafi did execute dissidents, this was a rare practice. Amnesty International has released figures:

Year Number of Executions in Libya
2007 9
2008 8
2009 4
2010 18

Amnesty’s figures include executions for crimes aside from treason–murderers also received the death penalty under Gaddafi. Amnesty’s figures may be incomplete–the regime may have committed additional executions and managed to keep them secrete–but it’s clear the regime was not slaughtering thousands every year.

By contrast, the years of civil war have been extraordinarily bloody. Death counts vary, but the 2011 conflict cost Libya at least 2,000 lives and possibly as much as 30,000. The current round of fighting has cost an additional 1,600 so far. The conflict in Mali, which was sparked by the instability in Libya, killed nearly 1,000 and displaced hundreds of thousands.

So what’s the upshot? The west intervened in Libya to get rid of Gaddafi in the hope that a non-sectarian liberal democracy would take his place. Instead, Libya today is poorer and more dangerous than it was under Gaddafi, and civil war continues to rage. There is no telling how many people will die in Libya before the conflict is resolved, and when things do settle down, what’s the likely outcome? If the Islamists win (and they currently control Libya’s 2 biggest cities), a country that was making strides on women’s literacy and education will slide backwards. If Haftar wins, Libya likely ends up with a new military dictator. Either way, there’s no victory in the offing for liberal democracy. The thousands of people who have died and will die in Libya will die in vain.

The intervention in Libya is a black eye on the west and on NATO. Yet already, we see the western states assembling in a coalition to intervene in the civil wars in Iraq and Syria. There is no reason to believe that the Syrian rebels or the Iraqi government will be any more successful in producing a non-sectarian secular liberal democracy than the NTC was in Libya. How many will die this time, and how little will be achieved?