Ten years after Gaddafi, Libya is a failed state wracked by civil war, militias, and a gaping power vacuum

By Kit Roberts


MUAMMAR Gaddafi’s fall did not usher Libya into a new dawn, only utter chaos.

Now divided between the supposedly interim Government of National Accord and the Libyan House of Representatives, neither has full control over the country or even more than nominal control over their own territories.

The complete lack of any semblance of rule of law has left the beleaguered country largely incapable of policing itself. Since the route into Europe via the EU became unviable, refugees fleeing Syria, Yemen, and Eritrea instead come through Libya, risking the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean which many do not survive.

From an international perspective, far from doing anything to resolve the situation in Libya, international bodies, most notably the European Union, have cooperated with Libyan authorities to block people trying to leave the country.

When mass migration first began, the boats used were largely relatively robust and safe. However, EU policy to confiscate or destroy boats did nothing to dissuade people from attempting the crossing, instead driving them to use more and more dangerous and unseaworthy craft. This policy has caused the deaths of many people trying to reach Europe. 

But it was not always so. In 2011, when protests first began erupting across the Arab world, Muammar Gaddafi, the eccentric, long-standing dictator of Libya, became one of the focus. 

[READ MORE: Tunisia: The Arab Spring’s only success story?]

Gaddafi doubled down, but only succeeded in solidifying the need in the minds of many Libyans that things had to change. 

A full civil war erupted, with rebel militias fighting army loyalists. Despite the determination of rebels, access to heavy weaponry, artillery, and armoured vehicles gave government forces the edge. 

The First Libyan Civil War finally came to a head in the coastal city of Benghazi. Benghazi had been captured early in the war by opposition forces, and was made the headquarters of the provisional government. In March 2011 it was under siege by regime forces, who were preparing to strike a decisive blow. Had they succeeded it would likely have seen the end of armed opposition in Libya that was capable of capturing and holding territory. 

At this stage however, the UN Security Council, urged by French president Nicolas Sarkozy, allowed a coalition of forces to intervene against Gaddafi. French fight-jets targeted artillery and armoured vehicles, robbing the regime forces of their advantage and preserving the opposition.

From there, opposition forces were able to advance, and by October 2011 regime forces had been defeated. 

Gaddafi himself met a particularly ignominious end, though reports differ. He was found hiding in a drainage pipe, and shot several times. Several videos circulated, one video appearing to show the former dictator being sodomised with a bayonet. 

Gaddafi’s death marked the end of a dictatorship that had lasted over forty years, and left an enormous power vacuum in the country. 

There is now a broad consensus, including from those involved in the operation, that the lack of adequate planning and preparation for the aftermath of the civil war has contributed massively to the descent of Libya into a failed state. With laughably inadequate support from the international community, Libya descended into chaos, with several armed militias attempting to seize control, and others simply terrorising the populace and refugees. 

The lack of government control over the territory drew many people desperate to reach Europe to go via Libya, as smugglers could operate with relative impunity. The result has been a litany of crimes against humanity committed by a score of different factions, including torture, slavery, people trafficking, and rape. 

Libya has seen a very different tragedy to that of other Arab states in which the Arab Spring failed. Whilst Syria has seen a doubling down of state violence, Egypt has descended into a new dictatorship, and Yemen has become the site of proxy wars, Libya appears to have been more out less abandoned or ignored by the world.

The responsibility of the intervention in creating the current situation is beyond doubt at this point, a ill-thought-out, knee-jerk reaction that unravelled what was already a volatile state. 

In 2021, the outside world continues to appear largely apathetic towards Libya. The EU has been more interested in keeping out refugees than fostering any peace, even pushing boats back into Libyan waters to avoid legal responsibility for their occupants. Responsibility for saving people drowning has been down to a few good captains who have found themselves unable to watch people die, and suffered legal consequences as a result. 

More recently, evidence has emerged of Syrian militias being present in the country, as well Russian forces making sorties in Libyan territory.

Libya is an oil rich country, containing the largest known oil reserves in Africa. Control of such a resource is a powerful asset, and Libya itself is currently more or less incapable of taking advantage of its resources. 

The Arab Spring in Libya has transformed the country into a failed state, it is a black hole in the map, into which those fleeing other conflicts find themselves drawn and increasingly difficult to escape. 

The intervention may well have toppled a dictator, but the empty void Gaddafi left behind simply changed the country’s problems, and did absolutely nothing to resolve them. 


Featured Image: Pixabay

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