What to do in Libya? The legacy of the 2011 intervention

On 17 February 2015, Libya was supposed to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the revolution that led to Gaddafi’s fall, and the beginning of a new path towards a future of freedom, rights and dignity, according to the values claimed during the so-called “Arab Spring”. However, over the course of these four years, something went wrong.

Right after the beginning of the 2011 protests, followed by the bloody repression undertaken by Gaddafi’s loyalist forces, the International Community agreed on the necessity of a military intervention aimed to save the Libyan civil population from the humanitarian crimes perpetrated by Gaddafi’s regime. The Security Council Resolution 1970, adopted on February 26th, not even ten days after the turmoil started, demanded to end the violence, besides imposing tough sanctions on the family of Muammar Gaddafi and his entourage. However, the resolution went unheard and on March 17th, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1973 which formed the legal basis for military intervention. This was supposed to implement a humanitarian principle known as the “Responsibility to Protect”, as the first and only objective of the mission. Libya was the first case where the Security Council made explicit reference to the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) to authorize a military intervention.

Initially constituted as a “Coalition of the willing” led by the US, by the end of March, a handover occurred and NATO took charge of the mission in Libya. The military intervention lasted until the end of October and ended up distorting the main goal of the Security Council Resolution, which revealed as being regime-change oriented. Many NGOs, during and after the conflict, asked to investigate NATO’s intervening coalition for the several civilian casualties provoked by the indiscriminate air strikes. Unfortunately, nothing has followed their demands.

Among the unsuccessful elements of NATO’s intervention in Libya, what has dangerously jeopardized the post-Gaddafi scenario was the international community’s failure to assist the newborn Libyan society in rebuilding the economy and its institutions, helping them to manage the complex democratic transition and re-establishing the rule of law. In fact, once the military campaign’s objective of regime-change was reached in October 2011, Libya was abandoned to social anarchy, at the mercy of heavily armed militias and radical Islamist groups. Soon after, the situation evolved into a full scale war between Islamists and nationalists.

In the summer 2012 free national elections were finally held, in which the General National Congress (GNC) emerged as the new Parliament, replacing the National Transitional Council with an 18-month mandate. Since the summer of 2013, when the Political Isolation Law (PIL) was approved to prevent the members of Gaddafi’s regime from holding public office during the country’s transition, the GNC has been dominated by Islamist factions. They also extended the body’s mandate that was supposed to end in February 2014.

In May, after a previous announcement to overthrow the government, forces loyal to General Khalifa Haftar – a former Gaddafi officer – launched “Operation Libya Dignity” against Islamist armed groups and the GNC in Benghazi, and later extended the operation to Tripoli.

New legislative elections were held in June, but only half of eligible people voted, and poll stations in the main cities were mostly empty due to security reasons. The votes resulted in the defeat of the Islamists, who then rejected the new elected parliament by accusing them of being dominated by supporters of the former regime. In response to the anti-Islamist operation led by General Haftar in June, a coalition of Islamist militias launched the operation “Libya Dawn” and took control of the capital. Soon after, the internal conflict turned into an escalating regional war with interventions from international actors such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, who carried out air strikes to sustain the internationally recognized government. On the other side, the Libya Dawn coalition was backed by Qatar, a well-known ally of Islamist movements.

The elected government was then forced to leave the capital and convene in the eastern city of Tobruk, near the Libyan-Egyptian border. In November 2014, the Libyan Supreme Court declared the elections unconstitutional, thereby making the parliament and the government that resulted from this vote illegal. The country was pulled into further political chaos, split between two rival governments and parliaments. Both sides were also supported by armed groups fighting each other to gain control of key areas.

To complete the picture, the deep political crisis and the institutional vacuum created a perfect breeding ground for the terrorist organization Daesh, better known as the Islamic State (IS). IS has been capitalizing on the country’s chaos, creating new headquarters and attracting new supporters to spread their power in the region. Not to mention their terrible executions methods, like the recent beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians that pushed Egypt into an open action against the terrorist group.

At that point, the reaction of the International Community was expected since such an important country like Libya can’t just be left to end up turning into a failed state. First, its geographical position, being very close to Europe and sharing access to the Mediterranean sea, which has caused an exacerbating immigrants crisis. Libya has become a major port for desperate migrants fleeing from war and attempting to reach Europe through Italy. This emergency situation worsened since the Italian Operation Mare Nostrum, established in 2013 to tackle the dramatic increase of migratory flows, came to an end in October 2014. It was replaced by the European FRONTEX Operation Triton that surprisingly has a lower budget and smaller capacity despite its European wide mandate. Moreover, the belief that this mass exodus might increase the risk of an attack on Italian territory is getting more concrete, considering the IS threat to take advantage of the immigrants flows to reach Europe and spread chaos.

Last but not least, the economic interests existing in Libya are one of the main concerns in the international arena and the leading motif of any international intervention. The rich natural resources, in Libya as in Iraq and Syria – where the organization was born – are being exploited by the IS as their main source of funding.

Taking these factors into consideration, the international community evaluated the opportunity of another intervention. The military option was ruled out due to the lingering reminders of the dramatic failure of the 2011 military campaign, where the US, Britain and France played a leading role in continuity with interests they have been pursuing in the country since after the Second World War. Moreover, the situation is not as easy as it used to be in 2011, when the dictator was bombarding civilians. Now that many different armed militias are involved, identifying the mission’s target is far too complicated and the international community can’t afford another misstep.

The UN sponsored peace talks – first held in Geneva and currently in Morocco – are unlikely to succeed, considering the rivals sides complexity to negotiate a compromise, especially since the Tripoli GNC is not even willing to attend the conference. This is due to the belief of having little to gain from negotiations, considering that the Tobruk government is the one recognized as legitimate by the international community, giving it a notable advantage.

An additional obstacle to the positive outcome of the talks is the absence of various armed fractions in the negotiations, as the international community refuses to acknowledge them as legitimate actors. In fact, recent developments showed how difficult it will be to reach an agreement between rival governments as fighting continues in the capital.

Anyway, even if this dark scenario might lead to believe that any possible solution seems capable to put an end to the ongoing Libyan conflict, this should not be a good reason to regret the fall of Gaddafi’s regime. Although stability is an essential condition for the state’s survival, it is not as treasured as the people’s freedom. It will take time, of course, since the country has never experienced any other form of government but only monarchy and dictatorship. However, the inability to manage the political vacuum left by the dictator’s death and the abandonment by the NATO coalition after the end of the military campaign is likely to be one of the main reasons of the long-lasting conflict that is chocking the country.


Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)

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