Libya’s Breakdown


The dictator’s unseemly end should have been a warning. The 42-year rule of Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi concluded with his capture and beating by an angry mob before he was killed. The 2011 uprising that led to his ouster unleashed hopes that the oil-rich country he’d turned into an international pariah would rebuild and lure investment. Instead Libya has descended into chaos. Battles between rival militias have driven citizens from their homes, sent foreigners fleeing, cut oil exports and exposed the country’s new government as impotent. The turmoil has allowed militant groups such as Islamic State to take root and dragged other nations into the conflict. That’s raised the possibility that Libya after Qaddafi may turn out to be better equipped to export Islamic militants than oil.

The Situation

Egypt said it bombed Islamic State targets in Libya after the group’s affiliate there released a video showing the beheading of 21 Egyptian Christians. The fighting in Libya intensified in mid-2014 when the militia guarding Tripoli’s international airport was attacked by an Islamist group, prompting the evacuation of embassies. The Islamists took control of the city and formed a rival parliament; lawmakers who were elected in June and internationally recognized relocated to the east. Violence engulfed the second-largest city, Benghazi, where a renegade general, Khalifa Haftar, battled Islamist groups such as Ansar al-Shariah, an al-Qaeda offshoot blamed for the 2012 death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. The chaos has left at least 720 people dead and 265,000 displaced. Militias have become fixtures, serving in some areas as the only police or as military forces on the government payroll. The oil industry became a focus of competing forces vying for control, and at times the battles left fires raging at key ports. Oil output fell to about a quarter of pre-2011 levels. The conflict began to take on qualities of a proxy war with Qatar supporting the Islamists, according to Libya’s government, and Egypt and the United Arab Emirates backing their opponents.

Source: Estimates compiled by Bloomberg News
Source: Estimates compiled by Bloomberg News

The Background

Libya’s long stretch of Mediterranean coastline brought occupation or colonization by Greeks, Romans, Persians, various Islamic dynasties and Italy before World War II. A block of desert about the size of Alaska, Libya has the world’s 10th-largest oil reserves. Its three traditional regions — Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica — were brought together as the Kingdom of Libya in 1951. Qaddafi’s 1969 coup established a country defined by its dictator and guided by his Green Book – a philosophical tome about everything from menstruation to economics. Oil wealth transformed the country of 6.4 million people from one of the world’s poorest into one of the wealthiest in Africa, and it amassed more than $100 billion in reserves. Oil provided free education and subsidized food, fuel, housing and health care, along with weapon stockpiles. Qaddafi supported Palestinian militants, sponsored terrorist groups and eventually accepted responsibility for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. That attack prompted sanctions from the U.S. and the European Union, which were lifted in 2003 after Libya handed over the two men accused of carrying it out. The Arab Spring uprisings found fertile ground in Libya, triggering violence in February 2011 that led to NATO airstrikes on Qaddafi’s forces.

The Argument

As Libyans began to push for democracy, they found traditional rivalries resurfacing and no functioning state to resolve them. That’s led to fears that the country could descend into chaos like that produced by Syria’s three-year-old civil war and concerns that it could become an oil-rich staging ground for the training of militants and for terrorist attacks abroad. The NATO allies who helped defeat the Qaddafi regime are unwilling to step back into the conflict, with the U.S. especially reluctant after the killing of Ambassador Stevens and subsequent partisan battling over the circumstances surrounding his death.

The Reference Shelf

  • Bloomberg Businessweek reported in August on “How Libya Blew Billions and Its Best Chance at Democracy.”
  • United Nations Support Mission in Libya December 2014 report.
  • A BBC Q&A on Libya’s lawlessness.
  • Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Brookings Doha Center, researched the task of reconstructing Libya.
  • U.S. Senate probe into the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi and a QuickTake on the topic.
  • Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan looks at how the millennial generation is changing the Middle East in his book, “The New Arabs.”
  • English translation of Qaddafi’s Green Book.

First Published Aug. 21, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Tarek El-Tablawy in Cairo at

To contact the editors responsible for this QuickTake:

Lisa Beyer at

Leah Harrison Singer at