Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Libya: Transition to Anarchy

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 Corbis
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 Corbis

Libya, engulfed in a deep political and security crisis since 2011, has no official president but an ever-changing number of prime ministers, two governments, two parliaments, two heads of the army, and a myriad of militias. It is uncertain how long the situation will last and how dangerous it will become. Libya has a lot of oil, though, so the global community considers it too important to abandon.

The three years following the beginning of the revolution (17 February 2011) have seen many ups and downs. The transition was expected to be complete by 7 February 2014, when the term of the General National Congress (GNC) was supposed to end. Deadlines were not respected, and February 2014 marked the beginning of another cycle in the transition. Below, we describe the period between the official end of Gaddafi’s Jamahiriya (“nation of the masses”) and June 2014.

The National Transitional Council (NTC) took Tripoli on 21 August, but it was not until 20 October that Gaddafi was captured and killed, in Sirte. The war ended officially three days later, on 23 October,  Liberation Day. The United Nations ended the NATO mandate in Libya on 31 October and lifted its banking sanctions on 16 December. The revolution’s prime minister (PM), Mahmoud Jibril, resigned in October and was replaced by Abdurrahim el-Keib.

The NTC then had the task of preparing for elections, the first free vote in the country’s history, scheduled for the summer of 2012. While those affiliated with the Gaddafi regime were systematically arrested—his PM, Baghdadi Mahmudi, for instance, who fled to Tunisia, was caught in September, while Gaddafi’s son and rumoured heir Saif al-Islam was arrested in November—problems were only beginning. Millions of small arms (and thousands of heavy weapons) circulated in Libya, while militias controlled several areas, which made Libya a barrel of gunpowder in the midst of a burning region. Civil war disrupted oil production, which fell from about 1.7 million barrels per day (bpd) in 2010 to less than 0.5 in 2011. The country’s economy, based on oil exports, accordingly collapsed.

2012: Growing Role of Militias

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

In order to control the armed groups, the NTC promised to pay any “revolutionary” who handed his weapons in to the state, but this had a contrary effect: many Libyans took up arms after the fall of Gaddafi and claimed to be revolutionaries, asking for a reward. The number of thuwwar (revolutionaries) climbed from 30,000 during the war to around 250,000 in its aftermath. The already damaged economy was further compromised, as was the security situation. In May, for instance, gunmen attacked the government headquarters to protest the announced suspension of their payments and pressured the government to keep paying their salaries. The international airport of Tripoli is still controlled by a militia from Zintan, not by the central government.

Many radical Islamists appeared during the war, with the east (around Derna and Benghazi) as their stronghold. They belong to the Salafi jihadist current of Islam, one of the most radical, and their flagship groups are Ansar al-Sharia (ASL) and the February 17th Martyrs Brigade. In 2012, political assassinations began in eastern Libya, primarily against Gaddafi-era politicians and soldiers, and the Islamist groups were accused.

There were popular reactions to this phenomenon and the growing interference of these militias in the daily lives of citizens. Between the spring and summer, for instance, Derna’s tribal leaders pursued the Abu Salem Martyrs Brigade, while Benghazi’s civilians faced down ASL demonstrations when the latter’s cars paraded with guns and black flags calling for the imposition of Sharia law. These initiatives were of little help, though, and the radical militias grew stronger and returned repeatedly.

Along with the political clashes, ethnic and regional conflicts emerged in Libya. In the south-eastern part of the country, for instance, Arab Zawis and African Tebu attacked each other in February, in a massacre that left scores dead. The African tribes are considered Gaddafi loyalists, and they have been targeted by a wave of racism—but not yet ethnic cleansing. There are also conflicts between Arab tribes and Amazighs, others involving nomad Tuaregs. Vendettas between rival towns such as Misrata and Bani Walid, and Zintan and Mashashiya became common as well.

Political transition

Despite the chaos, Libya held general elections on 7 July. The General National Conference (GNC) replaced the NTC and became the ruling body of the country, with the task of writing a constitution (the GNC later became a parliament rather than a constituent assembly). Its president, the speaker of the parliament, was the de facto head of state. The same period saw Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood) rise to power in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt, and it was therefore a surprise to many when the Islamists only came in second in the Libyan election. The transfer of power from NTC to GNC took place in August, and the liberal Mohammed Magariaf was elected president, replacing the NTC president, Mustafa Abdul Jalil.

Western countries, headed by the United States and France, supported the Libyan transition and invested a great deal in it. American NGOs established offices and collaborated with the Europeans in building a Libyan civil society. Their enthusiasm diminished in September, when the US consulate in Benghazi and a CIA annex were stormed by dozens of gunmen, leading to the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three US citizens. The United States began to shut down its training camps in Libya, and its diplomats (as well as other countries’) have often been asked to leave the country since then.

This did not stop the GNC from electing a new PM in October, Ali Zeidan, a liberal professor who took over from El Keib. Furthermore, the economy recovered, with oil production returning nearly to a pre-uprising level (approximately 1.4 million bpd) in 2012.

2013: Facing the Threat of Fragmentation

Clashes between the Libyan army and Ansar al-Sharia, Benghazi, 25 November 2013 / Photo Anadolu Agency
Clashes between the Libyan army and Ansar al-Sharia, Benghazi, 25 November 2013 / Photo Anadolu Agency

By 2013, several militias became affiliated with the Ministry of Defence, primarily the Libya Shield forces (army), the Preventive Security Apparatus (counterintelligence), and the Supreme Security Committee (police). This did not solve the militia problem, and, in April, the Supreme Revolutionary Council (a coalition of militias, Islamists, politicians, and members of the Libya Shield forces) forced the GNC to pass a law banning Gaddafi affiliates from public service and then besieged government buildings calling for Zeidan’s resignation. The law passed, and the speaker of parliament, Magariaf (many years earlier a diplomat) had to resign, to be succeeded by Nouri Bousahmein, who was backed by Islamists.

When a group of demonstrators tried to dislodge the Libya Shield from Benghazi in June, 32 of them were killed. Militias proved to be the real force in Libya and are determined to remain.

In July, another serious problem arose. The “rebels” of Cyrenaica, the eastern province, in which Benghazi is located, took control of oil terminals. The leader of the movement is a young rebel, Ibrahim Jadran, who was the security chief of the eastern oil facilities. By the end of the year, the Cyrenaica  Political Bureau, an “independents’ government,” was created, and Jadran announced his intention to sell his own oil. This was a major blow to Libya’s economy and the beginning of a serious independence movement that became vocal in other areas of the country as well. Libya was facing the serious threat of fragmentation.

It was in this explosive setting that Zeidan called for national dialogue among the different parties, establishing a commission to prepare the consultations. Many similar initiatives ensued—sometimes led by Libyan politicians, sometimes by neighbouring countries, sometimes encouraged by Westerners—but without tangible results.

Foreign interference

Foreign intervention in Libya was not only about building institutions and promoting dialogue—it was also military. On 5 October, US special forces kidnapped Abu Anas al-Liby, a top leader of al-Qaeda, without the consent of the Libyan government. Perhaps as a reaction, PM Zeidan was abducted for a few hours on 10 October. He was released unharmed, but the two events sent negative signals to the international community: Libya’s territorial integrity and internal security were mere myths. Diplomats and expatriates were withdrawn in 2013, the result of attacks on embassies and foreign institutions.

The kidnapping of Zeidan was blamed on the Libya Revolutionaries’ Operations Room, said to be Nouri Bousahmine’s “private army.” The conflict between the two men was not new, but it turned public in October. Bousahmine and the Islamists, with links to Qatar, disapproved of Zeidan, who was considered close to the United Arab Emirates (some describe Libya as the scene of proxy war between Qatar and the UAE). They also have two different visions of society, Islamist versus liberal. The conflict between “Islamists” and “liberals” that was bleeding Benghazi had moved to Tripoli.

Yet this conflict was far from ending in Benghazi, where a hardline soldier, Wanis Boukhmada, was appointed military governor in October. He vowed to fight Islamists, showing no sign of compromise or dialogue. The killings only accelerated, and, in December, a suicide car-bomb targeted a security post, killing 13 people. The conflict between the army and Ansar al-Sharia was escalating anew.

Sources claim that oil production declined from 1.4 million bpd in early 2013 to 0.3 by the end of the year. Libya’s revenues in the first half of 2013 were $27 billion but declined to $13 billion in the second half. By the end of the year, oil exports were lower than they had been in 2011, during the civil war. From mid-2013 on, the Central Bank of Libya was reported to be losing $7 billion per month of its foreign-exchange reserves.

2014: Deepening Crisis

Demonstration supporting Khalifa Haftar, Tripoli, 23 May 2014 / Photo HH
Demonstration supporting Khalifa Haftar, Tripoli, 23 May 2014 / Photo HH

In February 2014, three years after the beginning of the revolution, there was no time—and no reason—to celebrate: economic crisis, security disaster, fragmentation, and corruption were rampant, and a constitution had not even been written. Some militias from Zintan even surrounded Tripoli and ordered the GNC to dismantle itself (the situation was defused by UN mediation).

On 20 February, the government proceeded with the scheduled elections of the committee that is expected to draft a constitution. Minorities boycotted, and, while one million Libyans registered to vote, only half of those cast their ballots. There was violence, and many polling places did not open. Only 48 seats (of more than 60) of the committee were filled.

In this context, a former general, Khalifa Haftar, announced that he was taking over and vowed to restore order. No one took him seriously at that time, but he reappeared a few months later, beginning what he called the “Battle for Dignity.” Using military jets and heavy artillery, Haftar attacked the jihadist bases in Benghazi. He secured limited support all around the country, relying mainly on those nostalgic for the former regime and on discontented former members of Gaddafi’s army. He is backed by Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and, according to some analysts by, the United States. As of mid-June 2014, his efforts appeared to have had only limited success, and he seemed unable to unite the various tribes and groups around him, thus deepening Libya’s crisis rather than ending it.