Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Libya: The 2011 Uprising

Libya 2011 Uprising
Libyan fighters burn posters of former leader Muammar Qaddafi and the old Green Libyan flag in the town of Sirte on October 8, 2011. Forces from Libya’s interim regime scored a strategic goal in their push to capture Sirte, seizing a highway that opened the way to a final assault on a key base of troops loyal to Qaddafi. AFP PHOTO/AHMAD AL-RUBAYE


In the wake of the revolt about human rights abuses in Tunisia in early 2011 an uprising began in Benghazi in Libya. On 15 February security men arrested Fathi Terbil, a human-rights lawyer who represented the families of the victims of the massacre at Abu Salim, some of them of his own family. This happened after more than a month of protests across Cyrenaica in Bayda and Derna as well as Benghazi, against political corruption and the delay in building housing units.

At the end of January, the government tried to head off these protests with a 20 billion euro fund for investment and local development. It also released a number of Islamist prisoners. Saadi Qaddafi was sent to put down the demonstrations. But the arrest of Terbil sparked another protest, one that led to a full-scale rebellion against the Jamahiriya itself. Demonstrators started to use the pre-revolutionary flag of the Kingdom of Libya.

In Tripolitania, there was an uprising in al-Zawiya on 19 February and the next day in Misrata. In Tripoli itself, protests also emerged, but they were quickly put down, for the moment.

On 20 February, Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam, made a long rambling speech that showed that his previous display of reformist liberalism had changed into outright support for reactionary repression. The government used aircraft to attack protestors; the 24 February uprising in Misrata was almost crushed by air power.

In an atmosphere of confusion, a new political structure emerged, with the approval of the outside world. On 26 February the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1970 that froze the Qaddafi family’s assets, restricted their travel, and referred human-rights abuses to the International Criminal Court.

National Transitional Council

The following day the Benghazi rebels formed a National Transitional Council (NTC), the ‘political face of the revolution.’ On 5 March it declared itself to be the ‘only legitimate body representing the people of Libya and the Libyan state’ and appointed Mahmoud Jibril to chair its executive board. Its members came from a limited pool.

As the regime of the Jamahiriya faltered, important people in its structure abandoned it. Some fled, like Musa Kusa, the intelligence head, who went to Qatar. Abdel Rahman Shalgham, foreign minister from 2000-2009 and at that moment ambassador to the UN in New York, denounced Qaddafi at the end of February, while the NTC kept Shalgham in his post.

Qaddafi sent Mustafa Abdeljalil, his minister for justice, to negotiate with the rebels in Benghazi.
Abdeljalil had already tried to resign in January, even before the uprising began and on arrival in Benghazi, he promptly joined the rebellion. He became the NTC’s first prime minister.

To crush the rebels, Qaddafi sent Abdelfatah Younis al-Obeidi, seemingly a man of impeccable loyalty. Al-Obeidi had taken part in the 1969 coup (though not as a member of the RCC). He too defected and became the commander of the rebel forces. Because of his close association with Qaddafi, the Misrata militia and others refused to recognise him as army chief and Islamists rejected him too. On 28 July Colonel al-Obeidi’s body was dumped outside Benghazi. Who murdered him is still unknown, but it is believed to have been an Islamist militia linked to senior members of the NTC.

The man who replaced al-Obeidi as military commander was Colonel Khalifa Haftar who had gone into exile in the US in the 1980s, after commanding units involved in the failed invasion of Chad. In the US he had aligned himself with the exiled opposition group National Front for the Salvation of Libya.

In short, there were no significant military leaders with any experience who were not in some way tainted by association with Qaddafi. Very few opponents of Qaddafi had much experience in government. Some came from the exiled opposition; others had spent time in Qaddafi’s jails. The lack of institutional continuity and experience between the old system and the new was a crucial factor in the divisions within the NTC.

NATO attack on Qaddafi

The international community decided to intervene. On 29 March a number of European governments, the US administration, and allies from the Middle East recognized the NTC as the legitimate government of Libya. NATO sent warplanes to carry out aerial bombardments of Libyan military sites and provided a maritime lifeline between Malta and Misrata where rebel forces lifted the siege by mid-May.

In the final stage of the war, NTC troops began an offensive along the coast, capturing the city of Tripoli on 21 August. Qaddafi and his close circle escaped to Sirte, which they announced as their new capital. His wife and three of his children fled to Algeria. Sirte was finally taken by NTC-aligned militias on 20 October, and Qaddafi was captured and brutally killed on the same day, in a roadside drain near Sirte.

On 23 October the NTC, which the UN had recognized as the government of Libya on 16 September, announced the official end of the Libyan war, ‘Liberation Day’. As he had promised, head of the NTC Mahmoud Jibril resigned. Even so, resistance continued in some areas, particularly Bani Walid.