Libya’s Breakdown


The tears shed were few. For days the battered corpse of the Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi lay on display in a refrigerated room, a bloated reminder of 42 years of rule by the man who made Libya an international pariah. Libya’s 2011 Arab Spring uprising led to Qaddafi’s ouster and killing and unleashed hopes that the oil-rich country would rebuild and lure investment. Instead it 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. That’s raised the possibility that Libya after Qaddafi may turn out to be better equipped to export Islamic militants than oil.

The Situation

Fighting intensified over the summer when the militia guarding Tripoli’s international airport was attacked by a rival, pro-Islamist militia. Embassies evacuated their people by land, sea and other airports. Power cuts have become routine. Violence has engulfed the second-largest city, Benghazi, where a renegade general, Khalifa Haftar, is battling Islamist groups like Ansar al-Shariah, an al-Qaeda offshoot blamed for the 2012 death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. Fighting in both cities has left more than 200 dead and hundreds more wounded, and the United Nations says more than 140,000 people have fled conflict areas. Militias are now fixtures, serving in some areas as the only police or as military forces on the government payroll. The turmoil has crimped the nation’s oil output, holding it to about a third of its pre-2011 levels. Libya held a June election to seat a permanent legislature. This did little to settle its fractious politics; Islamists who controlled the interim legislature were voted out of power and boycotted the first sessions of the new parliament. Neighboring Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt have sounded alarms, boosting border security to stop a refugee flood  and prevent a spillover of sectarian strife. The UN, which has been asked by the new legislature to help protect the country, called on Libya’s warring factions to join peace talks.

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

The Background

With its long stretch of Mediterranean coastline, Libya’s tortured history includes piracy, occupation or colonization by Greeks, Romans, Persians, various Islamic dynasties and finally Italy before World War II. A block of North African desert about the size of Alaska, Libya has the world’s 10th-largest proven reserves of oil, according to BP. It has three traditional regions, Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica, which were brought together as the Kingdom of Libya in 1951. Qaddafi’s 1969 coup ousted King Idris and established a country defined by its dictator. He imposed a system of governance he called Jamahiriya, supposedly the highest expression of direct democracy. Instead it created institutions beholden to his will, guided by his Green Book — a tome that waxed philosophical about everything from menstruation to economics. Oil wealth transformed the country of 6.4 million people from one of the world’s poorest nations into one of the wealthiest in Africa on a per-capita basis, and Libya amassed more than $100 billion in reserves. Oil subsidized food, fuel, housing and health care, and provided free education and 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 eased and then 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. Calls for a cease-fire from Libyan lawmakers and the UN haven’t yielded results. That’s led to fears that the country could emerge as a wealthier Somalia, run by heavily armed warlords sustained by oil money and used as a staging ground for attacks abroad. Public executions are said to have taken place in the east at the hands of Islamist militants, with videos reminiscent of the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan. 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.

The Reference Shelf

  • Bloomberg Businessweek reported in August on “How Libya Blew Billions and Its Best Chance at Democracy.”
  • United Nations Human Rights Council’s March 2012 report on Libya.
  • 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.
  • 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:

Leah Harrison Singer at

Jonathan I. Landman at