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 morphed into fighting between dueling governments, driving citizens from their homes and cutting oil exports. 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 militants than oil.

The Situation

The transitional government that replaced Qaddafi proved unable to stabilize the nation and rein in militias that doubled as police and de facto military forces. Violence intensified in mid-2014 when an Islamist group attacked the militia guarding Tripoli’s international airport. The Islamists took control of the city and formed a rival parliament; lawmakers elected in June 2014 relocated to Tobruk, in the east, and remain internationally recognized as legitimate. They are allied with Khalifa Haftar, a renegade general focused on battling Ansar al-Shariah, an al-Qaeda offshoot blamed for the 2012 death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi. Islamic State, which controls parts of Syria and Iraq and has captured two cities in Libya, attacks both warring sides. It has also fought Ansar al-Shariah. Terrorists responsible for murdering 38 tourists on a Tunisian beach in June and 20 people at a museum in March trained at Islamic State camps in Libya, according to the Tunisian government, which began building a wall along its border with Libya to prevent infiltrations. At least 1,000 people have died in fighting in Libya, as many as 400,000 have been displaced, and some 1,800 have drowned trying to cross to Italy in unseaworthy boats. The oil industry is a focus of competing forces, and oil output has fallen to about a third of pre-2011 levels. The conflict has taken on qualities of a proxy war with Qatar supporting the Islamists, according to Libya’s internationally recognized government, and Egypt and the United Arab Emirates backing their opponents. Egypt bombed Islamic State targets in Libya after the group beheaded 21 people, mainly Egyptian Christians, in February.

Source: Bloomberg estimates
Source: Bloomberg estimates

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 and sponsored terrorist groups. He eventually accepted responsibility for the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which led to the lifting of U.S. and European Union sanctions in 2003. 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

With neither the elected government nor its Islamist rivals able to provide stability, fears are growing that oil-rich Libya could become a significant staging ground for jihadists. The recognized Libyan government and Egypt have pushed for broader international intervention, including the lifting of an arms embargo. That could help the elected authorities defeat their opponents. But it could amplify the conflict instead. In any case, the NATO allies that helped defeat the Qaddafi regime have been unwilling to step back into the conflict, with the U.S. especially reluctant after the killing of Ambassador Stevens and 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.”
  • Report on the United Nations Support Mission in Libya in February.
  • International Crisis Group report on Libya’s turmoil.
  • 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.”

First Published Aug. 21, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Tarek El-Tablawy in Cairo at

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:

Lisa Beyer at