Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Libya: Collapse of the State

Libya Collapse of State
A Libyan protestor writes a slogan as protestors block a street in Tripoli on March 2, 2014 to demand the release of fellow demonstrators detained overnight by gunmen / Photo Hollandse Hoogte


The revolutionaries during the Libyan uprising had no common aim beyond ridding Libya of Qaddafi, his family and political operatives. Libya disintegrated into separate governments, parliaments and armies in Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, which then divided between subgroups, especially in Tripolitania, where numerous militias cemented control of small areas.

The strategic value of Libya to the outside world did not change, with its position in the Mediterranean and North Africa and the phenomenal amount of oil that it produces. Hence, outside entities such as the United Nations and the European Union tried to mediate solutions while transnational Islamist groups like the extremist Islamic State sought a separate power base in Libya.

The interim government

The National Transitional Council (NTC) said it would set up a democratic and pluralist state. In November 2011 Abdurrahim al-Keib took over as prime minister of an interim government, but Libya was gripped by political disorder. Millions of small arms (and thousands of heavy weapons) were circulating through the country and passed into the hands of the many local militias.

The government effectively subcontracted security to autonomous armed groups, which won control of much of the country, often in rivalry with each other. Other temporary bodies were incorporated into the state structure.

An example was the Supreme Security Committee, led by Abdul Rauf Kara, which was taken under the formal control of the Interior Ministry. In reality, the entity, now called RADA (the Special Deterrence Forces) was autonomous and took charge of investigating anti-narcotics and organised crime and anti-abduction operations. It functioned as a police force in Tripoli and was well disciplined, but Salafi influences were strong and some senior officers were linked to the Madkhali movement. In the interim government, militia leaders occupied the ministries of defence (a commander from Zintan) and the interior ministry (a militia leader from Misrata). Islamist militias became important in Cyrenaica.

The disorder disrupted oil production, which fell from about 1.7 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2010 to less than 0.5 million bpd in 2011. The country’s economy, based on oil exports, accordingly collapsed.

2012: the Growing Role of Militias

Libya Collapse of State
Militia members guard the entry to the city of Bani Walid, July 2012 Photo NY Times/HH

Divisions between the militias and the factions in the NTC made it impossible to form a functioning government. On the one hand were the “true revolutionaries,” the thuwwar, who had done much of the fighting; they wanted to go beyond liberation and cleanse the new regime. On the other hand were those “tainted” by their past associations with the regime. Various hardline Islamist militias absolutely rejected what they called the secularist leadership of the NTC.

While the political structure disintegrated, Prime Minister al-Keib began preparing elections for a General National Congress (GNC) to replace the NTC. Its president, the speaker of the parliament, would be the de facto head of state. In the elections of 7 July 2012, the National Forces Alliance (NFA) won. It was a wide coalition of largely secular groups. The Justice and Construction Party (JCP), associated with the Muslim Brotherhood movement came second. There was a turnout of just under 62%, despite calls for a boycott, particularly from the Madkhali Salafis, who rejected all elections as un-Islamic. On 8 August, at its first meeting, the GNC elected as its president Muhammad Yusuf al-Magariaf, a longstanding leader of the Libyan opposition in exile.

The Zeidan government

Libya Collapse of State
Libyan Amazigh protest outside the prime minister’s office in Tripoli on November 27, 2011 as they step up pressure for the minority group to be represented in the government. AFP PHOTO/MAHMUD TURKIA

The GNC’s task was to prepare a new constitution and elect a new prime minister. In November 2012, it chose Ali Zeidan, a human rights lawyer, over the Islamist JCP candidate.

At first, the political situation seemed to improve. Western countries, headed by the United States and France, supported the Libyan transition and invested a great deal in it. US NGOs established offices and collaborated with the EU in building a Libyan civil society. The economy recovered: oil production almost reached pre-uprising levels (around 1.4 million bpd) in 2012. But Zeidan could not solve the problem of authority.

Zeidan sought to disband the armed groups or absorb them into the state security system. Some militias did affiliate with the Ministry of Defence, including the Libya Shield forces (army), the Preventive Security Apparatus (counterintelligence), and the Supreme Security Committee (police). But the militias saw themselves as vital guarantors of order because state institutions were ineffective and controlled by officials from the Qaddafi era. They were better armed than the remains of the regular army and police and refused to surrender their autonomy to state control.

Some Islamist militants saw order in the widest social terms – Madkhali ad hoc groups for the “prevention of vice and promotion of virtue” began to target Sufi Muslims and set about destroying their shrines and mosques although they were by no means the only group to do so. A campaign against Sufi tombs had begun in August. In late 2012, RADA, the Special Deterrence Forces, reportedly demolished tombs in the Uthman Pasha al-Sagizli madrasa in Tripoli.

Power shifted away from the Zeidan government. Radical Islamists, such as Ansar al-Sharia (ASL) and the February 17th Martyrs Brigade made their strongholds in the east (around Derna and Benghazi). In 2012, they began assassinating Qaddafi-era politicians and soldiers in eastern Libya.

Ethnic and regional conflicts re-emerged. In the Fezzan, there was a rebellion among the Toubou, an African ethnic minority living in the Tibesti Mountains and the towns of Sebha, Kufra, Murzuq and Qatrun. The Toubou had rebelled against Qaddafi in 2007 and when he fell, they attacked the Arab Zwai tribe on which Qaddafi had relied. In February 2012 violent clashes led to a massacre of Toubou in Sebha.

In Jabal Nafusa, Amazigh activists set up the National Congress of the Libyan Amazigh on 26 September 2011. It sought recognition of their cultural identity and the status of national language for Tamazight in the constitution. Less than 5 per cent of the population was Amazigh and the NTC refused. Violence followed when Amazigh militants tried to expel Arabs from land in Jabal Nafusa that Qaddafi had assigned to them. Vendettas between rival towns such as Misrata and Bani Walid, became common too.

Collapse of the Zeidan government

Pressed by the militias, radical Islamists and opponents of the Qaddafi regime, the GNC passed an election law on 5 May 2013. It excluded virtually everyone connected to the old system. Magariaf resigned as president of the GNC and Nouri Bousahmein, backed by Islamists, succeeded him.

Later that year, in October 2013, armed groups briefly kidnapped Zeidan himself, in what he said was an attempted coup. Later, the kidnapping was attributed to a militia organisation, ‘the Libya Revolutionaries’ Operations Room’, connected to Bousahmein, who had political links to Qatar. Zeidan was close to the United Arab Emirates and some described the struggle in Libya as a proxy war between Qatar and the UAE.

While Western countries, including the US, invested in building a Libyan civil society, their enthusiasm diminished in September 2012, when dozens of gunmen stormed the US consulate in Benghazi and a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) annex. The Ambassador, Chris Stevens, and three US citizens died. The USA began to shut down its training camps in Libya, and foreign diplomats and expatriates began to leave in 2013.

Libya Collapse of State
An armed man waves his rifle as buildings and cars are engulfed in flames after being set on fire inside the US consulate compound in Benghazi late on September 11, 2012. An armed mob protesting over a film they said offended Islam, attacked the US consulate in Benghazi and set fire to the building, killing one American, witnesses and officials said. AFP PHOTO STR / AFP

The militias faced opposition in Cyrenaica. In the spring and summer of 2013 tribal leaders in the Derna region confronted the Abu Salem Martyrs Brigade, and in Benghazi civilians faced down Islamist demonstrations in which cars paraded with guns and black flags calling for the imposition of Sharia law. The militias were able to shrug off these initiatives, because they posed no real threat to militia power.

In July 2013, a militia led by Ibrahim Jadran, the security chief of the oil facilities in the East, took control of the terminals in Cyrenaica and demanded autonomy from Tripoli. In March 2014 he attempted to sell oil independently of the Tripoli government and brokered a deal with an oil tanker, the Morning Glory. Prime Minister Zeidan was unable to prevent this and Congress replaced him with Abdallah al-Thani, who as an acting prime minister was able to re-open some of the oil terminals. Al-Thani allied himself with General Khalifa Haftar, who retook control of the oil facilities.

The split between Tripoli and Cyrenaica

In 2014 Libya split into two competing governments. The two main groups within the General National Congress based in Tripoli, the National Forces Alliance (NFA) and the Justice and Construction Party (JCP), would not compromise over how to deal with the mounting insecurity. Its mandate expired in January but in December 2013 it had unilaterally extended its term for another year.

February 2014, the GNC organised elections for a committee to draft a constitution. Turnout was very low and in the end, only 48 seats (of more than 60) of the committee were filled. This time, the Salafi Madkhalis participated, although they had previously boycotted ‘un-Islamic’ elections. They wanted to secure the role of the Sharia.

Operations “Dignity”and “Libya Dawn”

The increasing Islamist power in Tripoli led to protests, particularly in the east of the country. General Khalifa Haftar formed a military coalition in Cyrenaica – the ‘National Libyan Army’ (NLA) – by uniting some local militias with remnants of Qaddafi’s army. In May 2014, he used it to organise a military attack, ‘Operation Dignity‘, on Islamist militias including Islamic State (IS) forces. Benghazi-based Madhkalis, caught in their enmity for the Muslim Brotherhood, joined Haftar’s side. In Tripoli the GNC agreed to hold elections for a new House of Representatives (HoR) in June. These were held, but were marked by a very low turnout and Islamist militias in Tripoli rejected them. Libya was effectively split between two rival governments.

In the summer of 2014, a loose coalition of revolutionary and Islamist groups called “Libya Dawn” launched an operation of their own. Led by the militia from Misrata, they included some radical Islamists. They also supported militant groups in the east of the country and were backed by Qatar and Turkey. They took control of the capital and most of western Libya and seized Tripoli International Airport.