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Libya: A new unity government and rekindled hope, a decade after the fall of Gaddafi

  Apoorva Sudhakar

Today, the Libyans look forward to a rekindled hope as a new interim unity government was in on 15 March 2021

Over the ten years since the 17 February Revolution brought down a four-decade-old dictatorship in 2011, Libyans have endured the chaos that followed after a consequent civil war broke out in 2014. 

However, today, Libyans look forward to a rekindled hope as a new interim unity government was in on 15 March 2021. Abdul Hamid Dbeibah was sworn in as the interim prime minister; he said, "This will be the Government of all Libyans...Libya is one and united."

A month prior to this historic event, on 17 February 2021, thousands of Libyans gathered in the capital city of Tripoli to mark the 10th anniversary of the uprising that led to the end of four decades of Colonel Muammur al-Gaddafi's dictatorship. Arab News quoted several of those gathered for the celebrations. One civilian, who took part in the 2011 uprising, acknowledged the conflict that followed. According to him, "It doesn't mean you have to choose between Qaddafi and chaos. Revolution is a process. We must build a new Libya that we deserve." Others blame the post-2011 leaders for the current state of affairs in Libya.

On the same day, Amnesty International said, "A decade after the overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi, justice has yet to be delivered to victims of war crimes and serious human rights violations including unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, torture, forced displacement and abductions committed by militias and armed groups."

Revisiting Libya through the 2011 Arab Spring

In 2011, popular protests against Tunisia's 23-year-old dictatorial regime led to the overthrow of the country's leader, Ben Ali on 14 January. This inspired the Arab Spring, and several countries from the MENA region including Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Sudan, demanded an overhaul of the authoritarian systems. Libya too followed and, on 17 February 2011, protests erupted in the oil-rich country against Gaddafi. 

The protests escalated and threatened the oil and gas interests of external powers like the United States. Subsequently, Gaddafi was killed in NATO-led intervention in October 2011. Libya descended into chaos resulting from the sudden power vacuum. Though a Libyan National Transitional Council was set up as the Government, powerful militias and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant started operating in the country.

Following this, in 2014, an election dispute led to the formation of the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), and a parallel rebel authority, the Libyan National Army (LNA) in Tobruk. The GNA was centred in western Libya and led by former PM Fayez-al-Sarraj, while the LNA, led by General Khalifa Haftar, controlled the east.

Role of the external powers 

After forming the two parallel authorities, external powers like Russia, Turkey, France got involved in the conflict to safeguard their own priorities regarding Libya's oil and gas reserves. Turkey, Qatar and Italy supported the GNA. On the other hand, the LNA, led by a former general and aide to Gaddafi, was supported by Egypt, France, Russia and the UAE. The countries supplying arms to the two factions fuelled the war, and, as the UN reiterated recently, the 2011 arms embargo in Libya became "totally ineffective." Therefore, the involvement of these actors transformed the Libyan civil war into a geopolitical power struggle. 

The October 2020 ceasefire and the interim government

After numerous failed ceasefires between the GNA and the LNA, the one signed in October 2020 was one of the first positive developments in the country since 2014. Multiple rounds of UN-brokered peace talks followed and, on 5 February 2021, 75 delegates from Libya agreed on a new united interim government. The new president has been chosen from eastern Libya and the prime minister from the west. The interim government will replace the GNA and has secured its support and the LNA. The major task ahead for the Dbeibah government is to ensure that parliamentary elections are held in December 2021. 

After Dbeibah took charge, he called on the nearly 20,000-strong foreign mercenaries to immediately exit Libya. Following this, Turkey began its troop withdrawal and three European countries - France, Germany and Italy - had decided to reopen their embassies in Libya, after most diplomatic missions were shut when the civil war broke out. 

What does this mean?

First, the developments since October 2020 are notable because a breakthrough of this scale had not been achieved during the previous negotiations. One reason behind this could be that the talks between the GNA and LNA focussed on a power struggle between the two factions, while the current ceasefire led to the formation of an entirely new government, with the support of the erstwhile parallel governments.   

Second, external interventions without an exit strategy or a plan ahead for the country lead to increased instability. This is evident not just in Libya but in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and other countries. More often than not, external powers let the conflicts continue to serve their self-interests and increase their leverage in big power politics. The current decision of European countries to reopen their embassies signifies two things. One, the war in Libya may have cost them more than they expected, and the withdrawal from the conflict is a means for them to focus on other pressing issues. Or two, it implies that the big powers now believe Libya is on the path to peace. 

Lastly, though the 2011 revolution did not produce an immediate victory for the protesters, they have now pinned their hopes on the newly formed unity government. How the government charts out its course over the months leading to the December elections will decide the future of Libya. 

This commentary is an expanded version of a short note published in The World This Week

About the author

Apoorva Sudhakar is a Research Associate at the School of Conflict and Security Studies at the National Institute of Advanced Studies. Her areas of interest include peace and conflict in Africa and South Asia. As part of the Pakistan Reader Initiative, she also regularly studies Pakistan's domestic politics, radicalization and group identities.

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