So, some of you may have noticed a really incomplete update that popped up earlier. That was pre-scheduled, but not completed; this particular article has involved a series of rewrites. So please clean your brain and forget that ever happened. And if you didn’t see it, please clean your brain and forget about this paragraph.
Libya was ever so close to being the poster child of the Arab Spring. Not only did it overthrow (and also murder) its brutal dictator, but it then went on in 2012 to hold incredibly reasonable elections with solid results.
Then things started to go off the rails. Americans, especially obsessed conservatives, were informed that Libya was not smooth sailing during the September 11, 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi. But that was just a symptom of Libya’s unraveling.
Now it’s the battleground of proxy wars between Egypt and the United Arab Emirates on one side and Qatar and Turkey on the other. Throw in the sudden emergence of an Islamic State franchise, and you’ve got a really nasty mess.
And nobody in the West wants to deal with it.
So what in the hell happened?
Cliff notes! Fun, wonderful, lazy cliff notes.
- “Libya” as a territory has only historically been held together by tough, brutal central governments, from the Romans to Gaddafi.
- That’s because Libya is mostly a collection of spread out cities that under their own power would go separate ways; nothing geographically unifies Libya.
- When the 2011 civil war wiped out Libya’s last strong central government, the odds were really good that Libyan elites would mess the whole transition up, since they’d been kept as politically ignorant as possibly by 40+ years of Gaddafi misrule.
- And thus, when somebody in Tripoli pushed, someone else shoved, and the country started to split apart along its natural geopolitical lines.
- And as chaos grew, Islamic State and other jihadists smelled opportunity.
So…what’s a Libya? Mostly a stretch of North African coastline that’s on the way to somewhere richer.
“Libya” is a Greek word associated with Cyrene, the only part of Libya that has regular enough rainfall to support crops. Everywhere else is a desert; a nasty, rainless desert, which in pre-mordern times was populated by raiders in the interior and pirates on the coastline. Tripoli, the capital, is in a relatively temperate zone, as is Benghazi, the country’s second largest city. Combined, they hold almost half of Libya’s 6.2 million people.
Notably, they’re both on the Egypt-Tunisia coastal road. In ancient times, they were ports of call for ships going between these two places, or ships needing ports on their way to Europe.
In between is a vast stretch of coastal desert that in pre-modern times was virtually empty. A division between east and west wasn’t just political; it was geographical. Crossing that desert was hazardous, and no native Libyan power ever united east and west. Rather, Libya as a place was united by outsiders seeking to control Libya’s potentially pirate-y cities and trade routes.
This is key to understanding Libya today: when the West shrugs off an attack like the one that happened in September 2012, it’s because Libya is not worth the blood and treasure of reordering it.
And had oil never been found, Libya would struggle as much as Somalia.
Except at least Somalia has trees to export as charcoal. Libya’s history as an Italian colony is similar to Somalia’s – by the time Italy got around to grabbing colonies, the richest parts of Africa were already taken. The Italians had to make do with what was left over.
That equation changed when Libya’s oil was found. By then, the Italians had rather dumbly joined the Axis and lost World War II; the post-war world wanted a free Libya.
And like Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and other post-colonial Arab states, the international community, under the guise of the UN, set up a state that made sense only in the minds of the dudes drafting the maps.
Libya remained divided between east, west, and interior. The “interior” mean not just the deep Sahara Desert villages, but also the middle ground between Bengahzi and Tripoli, including Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte. For almost two decades, Libya’s first king managed to maneuver between tribes, but was outflanked when his own officers, inspired by pan-Arabism, overthrew him in 1969.
Enter the Colonel, who used oil money to build himself a police state while simultaneously unhinging himself from reality.
Gaddafi was really quite young when he took power: a mere 27 years old. Inspired by Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Gaddafi sought to copy Egypt’s authoritarian police state and propel Libya into great power status.
Except Libya could never be a great power. It hadn’t the population or the resources. For much of the 1970s, Gaddafi did the basics of state building to much success. He built roads, hospitals, and schools where there were none before. But all that oil wealth went to his head. Having aligned himself with the Soviet Union and armed his little country to the hilt, Gaddafi thought the combination of cash, guns, and his genius could turn Libya into a leading Arab power.
Egypt put that to rest in the short Libyan-Egyptian War in 1977, which Egypt decisively (and naturally) won.
Gaddafi was able to use his massive reserves of cash to bribe Libya’s fractious tribes while simultaneously employing a police state – trained by Eastern bloc experts – to wipe out elites who tried to organize against him. Gaddafi meanwhile sought to replace the pan-Arabism that Egypt espoused; his “Green Book” was a weird peering into his political mindset. His governing theory was never actually enacted; truthfully, it was a smoke screen that kept Libyans deeply ignorant of how government was supposed to function.
Gaddafi’s long and strange rule was marked by many terrible deeds, but because of his alignment with the Soviet Union, he managed to get away with most of his atrocities. When the USSR died in 1991, Gaddafi changed his tune considerably; gone were the bombings, assassinations, and Toyota Wars.
But he was not interested in developing Libya much, since further development meant he’d have to step out of the way.
Libya had gone as far as it could under an authoritarian dictator, but reform was absolutely out of the question. Gaddafi had the advantage of ruling a small population clustered mostly in a handful of cities; his well-armed security forces could and did put down whatever dissent emerged. Meanwhile, he could bribe the tribes of the interior, which in his hometown Sirte meant lavishing the town with unnecessary assembly halls.
Growing ever more the megalomaniac, he toyed with the idea of unifying Africa – with himself as head – while stagnating Libya.
The only organized force capable of threatening him were the Islamists. With bases elsewhere, Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood, sought to overthrow the obviously corrupt Colonel. Gaddafi took them seriously and locked up as many as he could.
Gaddafi did a fine job of holding Libya in place decades after other authoritarian states had developed more advanced techniques for control. Alas, the Arab Spring caught every jackboot strongman by surprise; Libyans were ready to take on their wretched Colonel.
And the West intervened partially out of humanitarian desire, partially out of revenge, and partially out of hope that a thorn in their side could be removed on the cheap.
While Gaddafi had almost completed his bridge-building to the West by 2011, the uprising that emerged against him was popular in NATO capitals. Nobody much liked Gaddafi as a man; his crazy ways had pissed off virtually everyone at one point or another, and when the UN vote came for a no-fly zone, even Libya’s own UN ambassador supported it.
The West saw a cheap chance to do some good, get even with a bastard, and replace a geopolitical worry with a stable, democratic Arab ally. There was reason to believe, at the time, that such a thing could happen; Libyan rebels themselves made all the right noises. But amongst their ranks lurked Islamist militias. And beneath all of Libya’s new elite seethed a political immaturity cultivated by Gaddafi’s weird and terrible political system.
Which made compromise, the essential trait of a democracy, impossible.
Libya’s militias were often regional: Benghazi vs. Misrata (west vs. interior), Zaitan vs. Tobruk (east vs. west). Those that weren’t were Islamist absolutists, who obviously saw democracy just as something they could hijack to take power. The American Founding Fathers, they were not; Libya’s elites initially made some good progress in 2012, but things fell apart as militias began to impose their will. Having just finished wiping out Libya’s military in the civil war, the rebel militias refused to replace it; to do so would have meant to give up the special privileges they felt they had earned.
The whole situation was made worse when the West refused to do much beyond say some nice things to the new government, which included an array of Islamists. Libya’s central government didn’t get the heavy arms it needed to wipe out the opposing militias. With the West taking its focus off Libya to its own bad economies and divisive politics, regional actors stepped in.
Turkey, Qatar, and Muslim Brotherhood-ruled Egypt initially supported Libya’s Islamists; all three were committed to seeing political Islam as the big winner of the Arab Spring. This scared the hell out of the Persian Gulf’s heavy weights, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. They backed the secularists and republicans. And neither of these sides much wanted to compromise.
By 2014 the political situation was extreme: militias were shutting down Tripoli, grabbing prime minsters, and trying to sell oil illegally. The central government basically ceased to exist and Libyans lost interest in democracy; the 2014 election brought out just 18% of the electorate.
Thus began civil war, round 2.
Not long after, Islamist militias sought to impose a settlement by seizing Tripoli’s airport in July 2014. This forced the elected government to flee the capital to Tobruk in the east, where it could, in a pinch, be protected by Egypt. Meanwhile, forces loyal to Tobruk led by General Khalifa Haftar began an all-out assault around the country with what remained of Libya’s professional military forces.
Qatar and Turkey double-downed on the Islamists, who now control most of eastern Libya, including Tripoli. Following the ousting of Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in 2013, Egypt switched rapidly from supporting Islamists to killing them. Allied with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Egypt threw down the gauntlet in Libya as the world’s attention shifted to Syria, Ukraine, and the Islamic State. This included airstrikes that notably did not have Washington’s approval.
And the Islamists, inspired by Islamic State, thought it might be worth their while to change their flag.
The sudden appearance of Islamic State in Libya is less of an invasion than a changing of colors on the sides of a technical pick-up truck. Former militias seek to gain prestige and recruitment by tagging along with Raqqa. Nevertheless, this spread is worth combating; an Islamic State franchise in North Africa that can take and hold territory is bad news for every European state.
IS thrives when two conditions exist: when there are Sunnis, and when there’s little or no government. Libya satisfies both. It should surprise no one that the IS flag now flies over Libya’s beaches.
Now the anti-Islamist Arab states are preparing for war in the absence of Western involvement.
For the West, Libya remains a sideshow with Russian tanks menacing Kiev and Islamic State forces still on the gates of Baghdad. For those Arab states who hate and fear political Islam – especially Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Jordan – time is a-wastin’. Today, Egypt’s president called for a unified Arab military force: that could well be cover for an Egyptian invasion of Libya, where superior Egyptian forces would easily overwhelm Turkey and Qatar’s Islamists proxies.
Should Egypt marshal its army for such a venture, Libya is a relatively easy target. It would also be a huge escalation of the conflict between Islamists and Arab despots. Arab states used to be able to count on America to fight their dirty wars; no more. Increasingly, Arab states will have to solve their own problems. Libya is one of them.