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Libya's unstable decade after Moammar Gadhafi's death

October 20, 2021

Libya has not managed to emerge from the conflict that preceded dictator Moammar al-Gadhafi's death on October 20, 2011. Parliamentary elections scheduled for December have been postponed.

Several people, a house and trees in the background, someone holds up a burning picture of Gadhafi
Libyans in exile protested Gadhafi in 2011Image: ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

"We announce to the world that Gadhafi has been killed at the hands of the revolution," Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) spokesman Abdul Hafiz Ghoga said on October 20, 2011. "It is the end of tyranny and dictatorship," he added.

In February 2011 Libyans, inspired by the uprising in neighboring Tunisia, had stood up to the regime of the dictator Moammar al-Gadhafi, who rose to power after the 1969 coup he had led.

By March, the United Nations had given its approval for a military operation to protect the civilian population from reprisals by the regime. NATO launched attacks on Gadhafi's military — significantly weakening the dictator's forces.

Bloody fate

Gadhafi fled the capital, Tripoli. After months on the run, he was found in the city of Sirte, about 450 kilometers (270 miles) east of Tripoli. Surrounded by opponents, the "revolutionary leader" was caught when he tried to escape through a sewer. The rebels promptly and violently killed him; a photo of the bloodied corpse went around the world.

A man crouches in an open drainage pipeline, there is writing on the concrete
Rebels said they found Gadhafi hiding in a drainage pipeImage: picture alliance/dpa

By the beginning of the uprising against Gadhafi's regime, food prices were rising and youth unemployment was extremely high, said Hager Ali, a research fellow at the Hamburg-based GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies who specializes in Libya. From the start, there were demands for democracy, too, as well as calls for an end to human rights abuses. Libyans wanted an investigation into serious human rights violations such as the 1996 massacre at Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, in which an estimated 1,200-1,700 incarcerated people were killed. "This crime was characteristic of the period under Gadhafi," Ali said.

People were giddily optimistic for a new beginning, but even then some observers urged caution. "The road ahead for Libya and its people will be difficult and full of challenges," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said at the time. "Now is the time for all Libyans to come together." He added: "Libyans can only realize the promise of the future through national unity and reconciliation."

That was wishful thinking, however, and, in 2014, the turmoil of the uprising led to a civil war.

Gadhafi's own power apparatus was very much to blame, Ali said. "He also bought protection from foreign mercenaries while keeping the lower ranks of the Libyan army out of power," she added. The strategy led to rivalries that continued for years after the dictator's death, in addition to conflicts of interest at regional levels.

 Haftar and al-Sarraj
Bitter opponents for years: Khalifa Haftar and Fayez al-Sarraj

During the uprising, the various groups were briefly united by their intent to overthrow Gadhafi, but the alliances disintegrated after his fall. "There was no functioning civilian political arena in which differences could be worked out and negotiated," Ali said. Several elections also failed to produce national unity.

Failed state

State power disintegrated, and, soon, there were two governments: one in Tripoli, the other in Tobruk, in the far east of the country. To protect or enforce their interests, an increasing number of foreign countries intervened in the civil war, including Russia, Turkey, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Mercenary troops financed by foreign states remain in the country to this day.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan tried to assert Turkey's claims to gas reserves in the Mediterranean Sea by forming an alliance with the internationally recognized head of government at the time, Fayez al-Sarraj. Russia, Egypt and the UAE supported the so-called government-in-exile in Tobruk, which is linked to the then-militia commander Khalifa Haftar. Egypt in particular hoped the cooperation would help Libya get a grip on Islamist forces, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. Various EU governments, in turn, were primarily interested in using Libya to keep migrants and refugees from launching Mediterranean journeys to the European Union — that's one reason why, in February 2020, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas stressed the importance of including Libya's neighboring states in talks.

Libya conferences

There were numerous initiatives to end the civil war and reestablish stability in Libya. Several UN special envoys tried to get the warring parties to the negotiating table, which finally succeeded within the framework of several initiatives — including two Libya conferences organized by Germany in Berlin in 2020 and 2021.

 Heiko Maas and Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, two men fist-bump
German Foreign Minister Maas and Libyan Prime Minister Dbeibah in June in BerlinImage: Michael Sohn/AFP

In February, Libyans agreed on Abdul Hamid Dbeiba as interim prime minister to support preparations for presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for December. Parliamentary elections were recently postponed again by a month. The longed-for reconciliation is making slow progress at best.

Many of the country's problems remain unresolved, Ali said. Control over the army and other armed forces is one of the fundamental challenges a future government faces. "There is a risk that the armed forces will not be controlled or will be insufficiently controlled and will not follow orders," she said. Several heavily armed groups could still override any election outcome.

Ten years after Gadhafi's death, democracy, stability and independence from external powers are still a rather distant vision of the future in Libya.

This article was originally written in German.

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East