Libya At War: How Did It All Start?

Libya At War: How Did It All Start?

Giacomo Di Capua
Libya, Qaddafi, War: How Did It All Start?
One of the members of the military protecting a demonstration against candidates for a national unity government proposed by U.N. envoy for Libya Bernardino Leon, is pictured in Benghazi, Libya October 23, 2015.” Source: Council on Foreign Relations

It was only days ago when mass graves were discovered in the north-western Libyan town of Tarhuna after General Khalifa Hifter’s loyalists retreated from the area due to military defeats in the recent weeks.

The gravesites are only a gruesome trace of the atrocities committed during the Second Libyan Civil War, begun back in 2014 and fueled by international interests in the country’s natural resources and domestic competition for political primacy.

The roots of the conflict lie however in the early-2010s transition of the Libyan people from Colonel Qaddafi’s forty-year-long rule to a mass mobilization in the name of political representation, self-determination, and deep economic reform.

Since 2011, when the first intrastate warfare broke out, Libya entered a state of subsisting political instability that has been hindering to this very day the possibility of pursuing structural policy reforms and starting a peace-building process under international auspices, as many would have hoped for after the Colonel’s fall.

The origins of the bloodshed

The civil conflict that erupted in Libya in 2011 and escalated throughout the following year, also known as First Libyan Civil War, took place during the pivotal period of the Arab Spring.

With Middle Eastern and Northern African protesters flooding in their national squares, demanding for a shift of power away from decades-standing dictators and autocrats, the Libyan case came to develop peculiar features that marked its political developments, significantly different from neighboring Tunisia and Egypt.

The determinants of such a peculiar escalation of violence range from systemic momentum for political transition in the grander picture of the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings of 2011 to the rise of a consolidated opposition to Qaddafi’s leadership. Nevertheless, state-focused analyses of the causes behind such conflict seem to provide unique insights about the nature and the internal drivers of what morphed from local protests to a blood-soaked intrastate warfare in the span of roughly a month.

As a matter of fact, systemic and individual-level analyses of the international scenario back in 2011 fail to illuminate factors that could justify the abyssal difference in nature, magnitude, and means of the Libyan uprisings compared to neighboring (and analogously illiberal) Tunisia and Egypt, where pacific demonstrations alone managed to galvanize political change.

Even though exact figures are difficult to draw due to the Libyan government’s clamp on media, independent researches estimate “a total of 21,490 (0.5%) persons … killed, 19,700 (0.47%) injured and 435,000 (10.33%) displaced” between February 2011 and February 2012, a clear-cut testimony of the intensity of the conflict (Daw et al. 2015).

The key peculiarities of the Libyan state that provide insights on the origins of the first civil conflict can be identified in three factors:

  1. the progressive economic impoverishment of the Libyan middle class and business sector;
  2. a cross-class and cross-generational dissatisfaction with Qaddafi’s leadership;
  3. the increasing disenfranchisement of popular strata within the Libyan regime.

An impoverished economy

Libya, Qaddafi, War: How Did It All Start?

Libya had been experiencing a long process of resource nationalization that started right after 27-year-old captain Muammar al-Qaddafi seized power with a coup d’état back in 1969 together with a Revolutionary Command Council (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2011).

As soon as in 1970, Qaddafi indeed started to take into the public sector the Libyan oil industry, transforming a variegated – yet only partially diversified – economy into an entirely oil-reliant system (Pargeter 2016). With the progressive restriction of private ownership and commerce, along with the disruption of one of the most stable markets that resisted oil fluctuation-induced stagnation – i.e. real estate, entrepreneurs and the Libyan middle class were drastically impoverished.

The sanctions imposed by the United Nations and the United States in the 1990s in relations to international investigations concerning the bombing of a civilian flight (the infamous “Pan Am flight 103” case) ultimately coupled with the 1993 oil crisis to shutter what was remaining of the non-oil-reliant Libyan economy (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2011).

In 2009, Libya reported an unemployment rate fluctuating around 20%, with roughly 43% households depending on a single income and some 33,000 families “living in unhealthy housing conditions” (REUTERS 2009) despite Qaddafi’s distribution of oil revenues in guise of national income.

The argument that the economic frustration had a paramount role in the ante-war Libyan society is further reinforced if we consider that, as soon as news of the Tunisian protests started to spread around the country, Qaddafi’s leadership ostensibly inaugurated a series of public meetings with prominent political figures while promptly proposing a country-wide increase of salaries (Pargeter 2012, 218).

The violence and rapid spread of the 2011 protests, which was conducive to a fully-fledged warfare, can thus be interpreted in light of the economic exasperation of a vast majority of Libyans that roots directly back to the country’s history of economic reforms.

Qaddafi and Qaddafism

Libya, Qaddafi, War: How Did It All Start?
Colonel Muammar Qaddafi in October 2011. Source: BBC

The 2011 protests had a transversal dimension that differentiated it from previous endeavors of riot and insurgency against Libya’s political establishment.

Libyans had indeed grown resentful and confrontational against the establishment that the Colonel created, often referred to Qaddafism – meant to represent the series of social, political and economic policies that characterized Libya from 1969 to 2011, rather than against the Colonel himself.

The previously mentioned crumbling of popular committees and the overall absence of political organization in Libya (Brynen and Mekouar 2013) had hitherto hindered any attempt to transfer political power away from the Libyan political establishment.

A national phenomenon however compensated for this lack of socio-political structure, that is what Mekouar (2014) defines a “local informational cascade” (211). While past demonstrations escalated into violence and local guerrilla, loyalist senior members of the Libyan political elite had always backed the ruling leader.

In 2011, defections of prominent officials – among others were the country’s Minister of Justice M. Abdeljalil, Minister of Interior Abdel Fattah Younes, senior military commander Suleiman Mahmud, and several high-level diplomats – de facto endorsed the revolutionary momentum by underlining a common grievance under Qaddafi’s rule (Mekouar 2014, 211).

The confirmation that dissatisfaction with the regime was not only the common man’s struggle, but it directly involved the political and military elite of the country did nothing but confer legitimacy to the protesters, conveying the idea that 2011 represented “an exceptional historic momentum that needed to be seized” (Mekouar 2014, 212).

Political disenfranchisement

Source: ISPI

Under Qaddafi’s rule, Libyans had undergone a process of total alienation from political power that was initially set off by the former captain’s Third Universal Theory of governance, which – while envisioning a direct rule of the people – entailed the elimination of any governmental bureaucratic apparatus and its replacement with popular committees (Encyclopaedia Britannica 2011).

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, however, Qaddafi tightened its grip on power while popular committees, lacking country-wide organizational and bureaucratic structures, lost their efficacy and representation powers. Regions such as the Cyrenaica and the Jabal Nafusa were neglected and antagonized by Qaddafi as the former lost all political power after the 1969 revolution and the latter was abode to the Berber population – the Libyan regime refrained from recognizing the country’s cultural heterogeneity (Joffe 2011, 14).

Internal dissent grew stronger throughout the 1990s. Three internal crises, the last of which resulting in a failed coup in 1993 against the Colonel, reflected an overall popular enmity against the regime. The army was progressively led to hostility against Qaddafism, as anti-coup restrictive measures were put in place by the Libyan leadership upon the military.

Finally, scandals such as the suppression of the prison riot in Tripoli that resulted in 1,300 deaths permanently damaged the regime’s credibility to its people (Joffe 2011, 14).

The late-2000s reformist wave, spearheaded by the Colonel’s son Saif Al-Islam, did not produce the desired outcome, and it can be argued that it officially sanctioned the notion that Qaddafi’s political power and economic model were being questioned. The cross-class and cross-generational wave of protests that followed the arrest of human right activist Jamal al-Hajji can be considered a consequential result of growing societal discontent.

In conclusion, proponents of a state-level analysis of the First Libyan Civil War could argue that the combination of those three exclusively national peculiarities of the 2011 protests magnified the insurrectionist momentum, led rebels to arm themselves and pushed the anti-Qaddafi militias to move towards the Tripolitan area within a week from February 15th, when the first protests were held in Benghazi.

After more than nine years of intermittent war, conflict is far from over and the prospect of peace-building and state-wide ceasefire appears aloof for the Libyan people.

  • How did international forces factor in Libya’s instability?
  • What is the link between Qaddafi, al-Sarraj, and Hifter’s leadership?
  • Had there been an illiberal leader other than Qaddafi between 1969 and 2011, would the conflicts have escalated?


Brynen, Rex, and Merouan Mekouar. 2013. “North Africa: Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia.” In Beyond the Arab Spring: Authoritarianism and Democratization in the Arab World, edited by Rex Brynen, Pete Moore, Bassel Salloukh, and Marie-Joelle Zahar. Boulder: Lynne Rienner.

Daw, Mohamed et al. 2015. “Libyan armed conflict 2011: Mortality, injury and population displacement.” African Journal of Emergency Medicine, 5 (3): 101-107.

Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2011. “Libya Revolt of 2011.” Britannica Online, April 17, 2011.

Joffė, George. 2011. “The End of Autocracy?” The RUSI Journal 156(3): 12-19., 

“Libya’s jobless rate at 20.7 percent: report.” REUTERS, March 2, 2009.

Mekouar, Merouan. 2014. “No Political Agents, No Diffusion: Evidence from North Africa.” International Studies Review 16: 206-216.

Pargeter, Alison. 2012. Libya : The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Pargeter, Alison. 2016. “Libya: The Dynamics of the 2011 Revolution.” In Oil States in the New Middle East: Uprisings and stability, edited by Kjetil Selvik and Bjørn Olav Utvik, Chapter 10. New York, NY : Routledge.

Suggested Readings

Sanalla, Mustafa (2020). “How to Save Libya From Itself? Protect Its Oil From Its Politics.” The New York Times, June 19, 2017.

Walsh, Declan (2020). “U.N. Expresses Horror at Mass Graves in Libya.” The New York Times, June 13, 2020.

Walsh, Declan and Eric Smith (2020). “U.S. Accuses Russia of Sending Warplanes to Libya.” The New York Times, March 26, 2020.


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Libya At War: How Did It …

by Giacomo Di Capua time to read: 7 min