Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

North African Turmoil: Libya's Descent into Chaos

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

North African Turmoil: Libya's Descent into Chaos

Article excerpt

The overthrow of Libya's long-reigning dictator Mu'ammar al-Qaddafi by an international coalition in the summer and autumn of 2011was hailed at the time as paving the way for a "New Libya." Instead, the country rapidly slid into widespread anarchy and violence as a kaleidoscope of tribal, ethnic, religious, political, economic, ideological, and regional interests, powerfully suppressed by the fallen regime, tore the country apart.

Nor has the violent chaos stopped at Libya's borders. With groups tied to the global jihadist community stepping into the fray in strength, political-religious militancy and a sea of sophisticated weaponry has spilled over to Libya's African and Arab neighbors, with dramatic implications for Europe as well. Anti-Western terrorist organizations affiliated with the global jihadist community have been the chief beneficiaries of the turmoil, destabilizing bordering areas and, in turn, injecting strong doses of belligerence and terror back into Libya. Escalating fighting, rampant lawlessness, and a power vacuum have turned Libya into an attractive arena for the aspirations of the Islamic State (IS), which by late 2014 to early 2015 had established a power-base in the country's eastern and central areas.

The collapsing Libyan state has become a textbook example of the law of unintended consequences. A review of how things fell apart-and what challenges lie ahead-may thus offer clues for how to approach similar situations.

The Qaddafi Regime Succumbs

Throughout the spring of 2011, a coalition of Western non-ground forces and Libyan rebels scored a series of military successes against Qaddafi and his loyalists. Rebels advanced westward from eastern Libya along the Mediterranean coast in an effort to seize the oil and gas fields, refineries, and export terminals and to inflict a fatal blow to the regime's power-center in Tripoli. By that point, there were growing cracks within the top political and military leadership of the Qaddafi regime. Eight thousand soldiers had already deserted during the initial phase of the uprising, including forces associated with the Zintan tribal group of the western mountainous regions. Musa Kusa, Libya's foreign minister and a Qaddafi confidant, had already defected in March. As of June 2011, the Libyan military "had shrunk to somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 (from its original 51,000),"1 yet the Western-rebel military coalition was unable to achieve a decisive victory.

This changed in early June when U.S., British, and French forces initiated air attacks on targets in built-up urban areas. The devastating impact on Qaddafi's army was soon apparent despite its reinforcement by devoted Sahelian Tuareg soldiers mainly from Mali, who fought fearlessly for "Brother Leader" as well as for their own survival. In early August, NATO stepped up its military pressure, concentrating its air assaults on the area surrounding Tripoli and paving the way for the rebels to storm the capital later that month.

On October 20, 2011, Qaddafi was captured and executed by the rebel militia of Misrata, a city on the Gulf of Sirte. Three days later, the National Transitional Council (NTC), the representative organ of authority established earlier that year by the rebels and, at that point, recognized by most countries as Libya's government, formally proclaimed the country's liberation. It was both "the end and a beginning,"2 opined one writer, but what kind of beginning soon became abundantly clear.

The Slippery Slope to Civil War

Soon after the regime's collapse, Libya was further wracked by turmoil and chaos, unprecedented in scope since gaining independence in 1951. The elimination of Qaddafi's iron grip, which had held together the diverse and often contentious elements of the fragmented Libyan society, unleashed with volcanic force the long-restrained effects of cruel political-religious oppression, chronic economic neglect and deprivation, and social and tribal marginalization. …

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