This backgrounder is meant to give you an understanding of what is happening in Libya today.
The modern nation of Libya gained its independence from European colonialism following World War II. King Idris ruled the nation which sought to emulate many of the European standards of the day. Britain and America were both heavily involved in the early years of the Libyan state, carrying over their entrenched military and engineering activity from the North African fights of World War II.
Extensive oil exploration began in the mid-1950s with the first major discoveries occurring in 1959. These discoveries radically altered life in Libya transitioning the young state from being one of the poorest nations in the world to a wealthy state. In the first decade after the discovery of oil however, resentment began to grow. Most of the oil wealth was concentrated in the hands of King Idris and his loyal allies.
Muammar Gaddafi Revolutionary and Ruler in Libya
In 1969 a popular and bloodless coup quickly overthrew King Idris. The coup was carried out by the Free Officers Movement, a group which emulated the ideology and organization of Gamal Abdul Nasser who had carried out a similar coup in nearby Egypt in 1952.
Central to the Libyan Free Officers movement was Muammar Gaddafi, a young communications officer in the Libyan army who was not yet 30 years old. Gaddafi claimed the 1969 coup meant freedom, socialism, and unity for the Libyan people. The coup was popular throughout Europe and when King Idris took refuge in Egypt announcing he had no plans to return to Libya, the rest of the world quickly recognized the new government of Libya.
Gaddafi ruled Libya for the next several decades until his death in 2011. Although his initial reforms in Libya were very popular and successful, he increasingly sought to profile himself as an agitator and revolutionary throughout the 1970s. Soon Gaddafi was seen as a pariah among many of the new generation of leaders in the Middle East and also the western world. He consistently embraced and endorsed terrorist groups throughout the Middle East and made frequent and public calls for assassinations against other leaders in the Arab world. The United States placed Libya on its list of State Sponsors of Terrorism in the 1970s.
Gaddafi’s increase in support and sponsorship of terrorism in the 1980s escalated his and Libya’s polarization from the rest of the world. While he pursued a relationship with the Soviets he was seen as an unpredictable extremist and held at arm’s length there. Meanwhile, the US, under President Ronald Reagan, became more outspoken in their stance against Gaddafi’s Libya. Reagan called the Libyan ruler the “mad dog of the desert” and in 1986 even bombed Gaddafi’s home in response to a Libyan sponsored terrorist attack in Germany.
In the 1990s enmity between Gaddafi and a growing Islamist movement grew. As Gaddafi became more paranoid in the face of frequent coup and assassination plots against him, Islamists became more outspoken. He used his police forces to press down hard on his religious opponents with frequent raids on mosques and imprisonment of Islamic organization members and leaders.
In the 2000’s a series of widespread economic reforms in Libya converged with a softening of international tensions. Muammar Gaddafi, the man who had reinvented himself and his ideology so many times as leader of Libya believed this was yet another new turn for him. But the end of the Gaddafi regime was actually nearing.
Arab Spring and the Libyan Civil War – The Lead Into What Is Happening in Libya
The 2008 economic meltdown converged with the 2007 Global Food Crisis. Most reports do not relate these two significant events to the Arab Spring of 2011 but these economic realities were what brought the people of the Middle East and North Africa to the streets in protest. Massive economic upheaval meant skyrocketing unemployment and inflation and produced populace who believed they had nothing to lose and certainly nowhere else to be.
Gaddafi and his government initially responded shrewdly to events of Arab Spring unfolding in the countries around them. Food prices within Libya were lowered. The army was purged of potential defectors. Islamist prisoners were released from prisons. It was all too little too late. Unemployment in Libya towered above 30% and Gaddafi’s government was rife with corruption. The Libyan people took to the streets and full-scale revolt broke out in a matter of days.
The various rebel groups formed a National Transition Council (NTC) to fight against Gaddafi’s forces. Reports of human atrocities and rights violations were rampant from both sides of the fighting. Gaddafi took to the airwaves and exhorted his supporters to fight against the NTC but he was quickly losing control of the situation.
The United Nations Security Council issued calls for a no-fly zone in Libya to prevent Gaddafi from further civilian bloodshed. NATO enforced the no-fly zone and initiated strikes on Gaddafi loyalist targets. France, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates began supporting NTC forces either with arms or fighters. The International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for Gaddafi and his sons.
By August, a mere six months after the outbreak of the revolt and with the help of NATO air support, the NTC was in control of the cities and areas of Libya that had once been Gaddafi’s strongholds. Gaddafi remained in hiding along with several of his top officers and cabinet members. In October his convoy was found fleeing for refuge. NATO airstrikes hit the convoy. Following a gunfight, the infamous dictator was taken captive by rebel fighters and beaten to death by a mob. His death was captured on cell phone footage that traveled around the world.
Muammar Gaddafi, the man who ruled Libya for more than 40 years was dead.
The Second Libyan Civil War – What Is Happening in Libya
The liberation of Libya was celebrated on October 23, 2011. Representatives of the NTC estimated 30,000 people were killed in the fighting. (Most international organizations estimate the number to be much lower.) More than 60 nations recognized the NTC as the official governing body of Libya.
With Gaddafi dead however the NTC found it difficult to keep Libya united and even more difficult to govern. In 2012 election gave way to the rise of the General National Congress to replace the NTC as Libya’s post-civil war government. Almost 20% of the new government identified itself as Islamist. Gridlock within the new government rendered it all but useless.
By September 2013 divisions and fighting among various militias throughout the country led to an almost complete breakdown of oil production, the country’s top export. Complaints of government corruption were once again rampant. Security was collapsing as even the new Prime Minister was kidnapped by a militant group. Government authority broke down across the country and Libya disintegrated into a second civil war.
The spread of the Islamic State and other militant factions increased dramatically during this time period. Ansar al-Sharia established itself as an influential Islamist militia that opposed democracy and western influence in Libya. The name of the organization itself means “supporters of Islamic law.” In 2012 the group gained notoriety through their attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
In the 2014 elections, voter turnout dropped to 18% (it had been 62% in 2012). The violence and insecurity in Libya meant it was too dangerous to vote. Following the elections, the Islamist factions disavowed the results and in effect, a second civil war began at this point.
There became two parliaments and two governments within Libya, with each side not recognizing the legitimacy of the other. By July of that year, there were more than 1,600 different armed militias operating in Libya.
The power and divides within the country were categorized primarily along an east versus west divide. In the west Islamist groups backed the General National Congress with their stronghold in Tripoli. In the east, Khalifa Hifter and his Libyan National Army ruled out of their stronghold in Benghazi.
Who Is Khalifa Hifter
Khalifa Hifter is a native of Libya who joined the military under King Idris. He was part of Muammar Gaddafi’s revolution and served the Libyan dictator until 1987 when he defected to the United States. He lived in Virginia until the outbreak of the Libyan Civil War. He maintained his ties with his homeland and an outspoken stance against Gaddafi during this time.
In 2011, as the Civil War erupted across Libya Hifter returned to his country to join the fight. He was unable to raise enough followers at the time however so returned again to the United States. As the second Libyan Civil War spread in its violence in 2014 Hifter returned to Libya again to put down the rising Islamist groups and threat. He announced by video at this time his intention to take down those who held the power in Libya.
Hifter formed the Libyan National Army and managed to exact a heavy toll against Islamist and militia fighters throughout eastern Libya where his stronghold was established. He has continued to hold himself as a threat to the existing power structure in Libya since then but until last month did not make direct attacks. The United States and much of Europe have supported the GNC in the west which allowed them to become the officially recognized leadership of Libya.
In February Hifter’s forces struck out for the southern desert region of Libya and quickly brought this region into his holdings. It is believed that most of the areas and militias made deals with Hifter rather than fight with him. Then in April he set his sights on Tripoli and began the most recent military advance that has captured the world’s attention.
Hifter sells himself as an anti-Islamist. This makes him appealing to the western world who worry about the strongholds being established in Libya by various extremist groups. But Hifter’s claims are somewhat dubious. His appears to be backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, both nations historically supportive of Islamist ideology in other parts of the world.
He also controls much of Libya’s oil-producing regions which is something the US administration has taken note of. The US believes that befriending Hifter could be the easiest way to maintain stability in the world oil markets. In April President Trump went against official US policy (which has previously endorsed the GNC as the official government of Libya) and held a telephone call with Hifter. Egypt’s President Sisi meanwhile welcomed Hifter for a state visit to Cairo one week after Sisi himself met with US President Trump. The timing seemed to be more than a coincidence.
Refugees in Libya
Throughout the civil war years, Libya has become a hub for refugees seeking to escape North Africa to Europe. Human trafficking has been a rampant problem here. At present, there is an estimated 600,000 refugees and displaced people in Libya.
The EU has discreetly supported the GNC government as part of its efforts to stop the flood of refugees entering Europe from the south. Libya’s Coast Guard, with the EU’s endorsement has picked up and arrested thousands of refugees seeking to reach Europe and placed them in prisons in Libya. These prisons are run by local militias held over from the civil wars.
Current Status – What Is Happening In Libya
In the early week’s of April Hifter’s LNA forces experienced great success and momentum as they advanced upon Tripoli. In recent days however their advance has stalled as they have encountered more battle-hardened Islamist groups in Tripoli.
The Libyan capital is descending into a war zone and it seems there is no positive ending available to all of this fighting. No matter who wins the current round of fighting it is not likely they will be any more capable of building consensus among the various militias and interests than their predecessors were.
Currently, Turkey and Qatar are supporting the Islamist factions while Hifter and his alliances hold the unique status of courting both Russian and American favor at the same time.
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