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Five Years On, Revolution Leaves Libya in the Grip of Civil War and the Islamic State

Muammar Qaddafi is gone and his sons are either dead or in prison, but Libya is still convulsing as rival governments vie for control of the oil-rich nation.
February 17, 2016, 6:40pm
Imagen vía Wikimedia Commons

It's been five years since Libyans rose up to depose their longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Qaddafi is gone and his sons are either dead or in prison, but Libya is still convulsing as rival governments vie for control of the oil-rich nation.

The Islamic State has meanwhile emerged as a powerful regional force amid the warring factions, carving out a zone of control along Libya's southern coast.

Charismatic and brutal, Qaddafi managed to dominate Libyan politics for over four decades, shifting his alliances and ideological orientation over time. Once a staunch enemy of the United States, the Libyan dictator had warmed relations with Washington in his last decade, cooperating in George W. Bush's "War on Terror" and even allegedly coordinating with the US and the UK in helping to torture and disappear terrorism suspects.

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But, as protests swept across the Arab world in early 2011 — in Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain, and elsewhere — Libyans began to openly vent their frustration with their own political elites. On February 17, 2011, Libyans participated in a series of coordinated protests across the country directed against human rights abuses and bad governance. The display was dubbed a "day of rage." Like their counterparts across the region, Libyan security forces responded by firing live ammunition into crowds, setting in motion the shocking and rapid fall of Africa's oldest dictator.

Major figures within Qaddafi's regime began to defect, triggering a bloody showdown between regime loyalists and the nascent rebel groups. Within days, rebels won control over chunks of the country. In March, NATO began bombing Libya, officially to enforce a UN-backed no-fly zone, but effectively clearly the way for regime change. Qaddafi's forces were soon routed, and rebels entered the capital of Tripoli by the summer.

The former leader was captured and killed that following October, but replacing his government with a stable alternative quickly became a protracted and bloody struggle.

Though Libya held elections for a new parliament in July 2012, the revamped constitution that the legislature was supposed to help draft was not finalized and the new government failed to establish a monopoly on the use of force. Regional militias, like the one that attacked the US consulate in Benghazi that September, grew in influence.

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After a contested 2014 election, two rival Libyan parliaments, an Islamist-dominated body based in Tripoli and an internationally recognized legislature based in the eastern city of Tobruk, both claimed to represent the democratic will of the people as militias loyal to either side fought for supremacy. The warring sides recently signed a UN-brokered deal to form a unity government, but preserving the accord while re-establishing order and stability and ending the persistent bloodshed will be an arduous task.

Watch the VICE News documentary Libya's Quiet War: The Tuareg of South Libya

The Islamic State first established a foothold in the city of Derna in 2014. By early 2015, the group declared Sirte, a major coastal city, to be its capital in Libya. Today it claims to have operatives working in every major Libyan city. Major IS leaders from Iraq and Syria have relocated to Libya, where the fractured political scene provides some cover for the group's activities.

While the US and its allies are bombing IS in Syria and Iraq, the Libyan branch has been mostly spared, though the US has used drones to assassinate Libyan-based leaders. Over the past week, US officials have begun to publicly contemplate expanding the anti-IS operation to Libya.

"With respect to Libya, I have been clear from the outset that we will go after ISIS wherever it appears," President Obama said on Tuesday. "We are working with our other coalition partners to make sure that, as we see opportunities to prevent ISIS from digging in in Libya, we take them."

What exactly that means, however, and whether Libya will continue to fracture after five years of civil war, remains to be seen.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons