Related Articles
Forward article link
Share PDF with colleagues

Review: The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath

A new book helps explain why the revolution to topple Muammar Qadhafi turned sour so quickly

Libya's uprising in 2011 seemed straightforward. "Qadhafi treated the country like a farm," one Tripolitanian told your correspondent, to explain the angry energy around him, "and the people were its animals." The revolution and civil war to topple the dictator was a heady period, full of optimism that a new state, helped into being by Western intervention, would deliver freedom to a long-suffering people. 

Now many Libyans ask if the bloodshed was worth it. Two governments claim to rule Libya. United Nations mediation to end a civil conflict between sides that roughly represent them has so far been fruitless. Islamic extremists operate with impunity in Sirte, Derna, Sabratha and parts of Benghazi, the cradle of the revolution. Militias have carved up Tripoli into zones of control. Oil production, Libya's main export business, is now just 300,000 barrels a day (b/d), a fifth of its pre-2011 level. The economy has collapsed.

For a country of only 6 million people, Libya is unusually important to the rest of the world. Southern European countries worry about refugees arriving from across the Mediterranean. The US and others fret about the terrorists building a new base from which to spread violence. In January, Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for a deadly assault on the Corinthia, one of the capital's prestigious hotels and home to foreign investors, diplomats and even the Tripoli-based prime minister Omar al-Hassi. 

Libya's high-quality crude gives it an importance to the global oil market far beyond the meagre 1.7% of global supply its output capacity can claim. Thus the International Energy Agency released emergency stocks to prevent a damaging price spike when the fighting curtailed the country's production in 2011. The rise of US oil since then has lessened the impact of more recent supply interruptions from Libya, but oil traders still pay huge sums for intelligence about what is happening in the country, and how it will affect shipments.

Making sense of Libya's post-war descent is difficult - but possible, as The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath, a timely collection of essays on the country, shows. Libya's divisions - tribal, regional, and in the vision of what kind of state should replace the dictatorship - pre-dated and transcended the revolution, whose leaders were united only in one goal: the end of Qadhafi's rule. Yet even before he'd been ousted, his opponents were jostling for control of the revolution. This, write Peter Cole and Brian McQuinn, two of the book's authors, created "unique political and military structures and relationships in every major city and sub-region".

Some of these relationships coalesced, at least superficially, into the two broad coalitions that now vie for control of Libya. These are, on one side, the Tripoli-based government, a remnant of the General National Congress (GNC) elected in 2012, and supported by the militias of Libyan Dawn (Fajr), which draw chiefly on Misrata's martial might; versus the exiled Tobruk-based House of Representatives and Baida-based prime minister, recognised internationally as Libya's government and supported by General Khalifa Hiftar's military movement Dignity (Karama). Each has its foreign backers: Qatar and Turkey aiding Fajr and the GNC; Egypt and the Gulf states sending arms and even aircraft to the Tobruk government and Hiftar, who may also have the ear of the CIA.

The book's history doesn't reach this most recent cleavage in Libya, but offers reasons why it came about. Berkeley professor Peter Bartu's chapter on the National Transitional Council (NTC), the interim government that emerged in the weeks after the revolution began, makes plain that two camps - roughly corresponding to Islamists against secularists - were competing even before the NTC gained international recognition. Foreign involvement exacerbated the rivalry. The "conflict between the 'Islamist' and 'secular' networks would plague the fall of Tripoli and beyond," write Cole and Umar Khan in a rich account of the politics leading up to the capital's liberation. 

Yet secularists against Islamists, whose rise is the subject of a chapter by the Irish journalist Mary Fitzgerald, is not the whole story. In Libya's less-developed east, an early post-Qadhafi federalist movement failed to gain popular support, but the NTC's concessions to it, writes Sean Kane, a former UN official, eventually encouraged Ibrahim Jadran and his separatist-minded followers to seize the major oil terminals in the Sirte basin in 2013, shutting in 90% of Libyan exports and costing the country $5 billion it badly needed. Keeping Libya stable, writes Kane, "will be difficult if its politically hyperactive eastern region does not buy into the new order".

This new order has yet to appear. Beyond the main divisions lie other difficulties in a country far more diverse than outsiders imagine. Chapters on the Tebu and Tuareg of Libya's south reveal problems untouched by the revolution; one on the Nafusa Mountains shows yet other layers of tribal rivalry. Zintan and its powerful militia - a counterweight to Misrata's - remain ostensibly within Hiftar's Karama coalition, and may once again play a part in the general's efforts to 'liberate' Tripoli. Yet nothing is certain. As Zintan showed in its refusal to join the fight against Bani Walid, a final Qadhafi hold-out, older loyalties - and more local interests - can transcend all else.

The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath

Misrata may now be crucial to Libya's future. While the Tripoli-based GNC has been reluctant to take part in the UN-sponsored talks, some militia leaders in Misrata, source of Fajr's military strength, are willing. Misrata suffered more than other cities in the war against Qadhafi and its commerce has been undermined again by Hiftar's airforce, which has targeted the port. The war-weary town has much to gain from peace. Its role in any settlement will be critical. 

For all the problems, there is some optimism in The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath. If Libya's divisions can be contained, "a bright future awaits it", write Cole and McQuinn. The speed at which Libya restored oil production after Qadhafi's fall defied many forecasts, and was testament to Libyans' capacity to muddle through even in the direst situations.

Yet in the time since the authors wrote, things have worsened. The attacks on Es-Sider's oil storage facilities in December 2014 and on the Mabruk oilfield in February show that a battle for control of oil - which gets too little attention in this book - is now also part of the conflict. As the peace talks continue, the cracks within the two opposing umbrella organisations battling for Libya are becoming more apparent too. Containing Hiftar's ambitions is already a problem for the Tobruk government. The expansion of IS and the persistence of Ansar al-Sharia and other terror groups is an even graver threat amid Libya's ever-shifting complex of affiliations and rivalries. "Ironically," writes Dirk Vandewalle, an academic at Dartmouth College, "the new Libya has become to some extent the kind of decentralised polity Qadhafi pursued so assiduously in his jamahiriyya". It's no praise for the madman's legacy and hardly instills confidence in Libya's future. 

The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath, Hurst & Co, London. 2015

Also in this section
Saudi Arabia's Vision 2030 looks blurry in Khashoggi aftermath
18 October 2018
International reaction to the disappearance of prominent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi will lead, at very least, to delays to the kingdom’s ambitious reform programme
South Africa urgently seeking gas as energy transition stalls
18 October 2018
South Africa’s power sector plans envisage a big role for gas, but first the country needs to find the feedstock
Senegal and Guinea-Bissau deal faces domestic pressures
17 October 2018
Guinea-Bissau is eager to kick start exploration in acreage shared with oil-rich Senegal, but it’s slow going