civil war in libya

Written by Aeliya Zaidi 1:47 pm International Relations, Published Content, Research Papers

Civil War in Libya: The Impact of the Arab Spring

The civil war in Libya has been a constant struggle for power. It has turned Libya into a failed state, divided between two administrations. The author asserts that the civil war in Libya divided groups, ethnicities and sects and played them against each other, causing nothing but destruction.
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About the Author(s)
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Aeliya Zaidi is a student of International Relations at SZABIST, Islamabad. She is in
her final semester and plans to pursue her master's in the same field.


The first civil war in Libya started in the middle of February 2011. The population of Libya was inspired by the uprisings in neighboring countries like Tunisia and Egypt. Their violent protests against their respective governments gave the courage to the Libyans to protest against their own government.

Uprisings against the four-decade rule of Colonel Muammar Gadaffi led to a full-blown civil war and military intervention in Libya, grabbing the attention of all the major international players. The conflict originally started in form of protests, demonstrations, and riots against Gaddafi’s government.

The colonel sent troops with the intention of breaking the rebellion but the rebels had already started creating their own government. The prolonged civil war eventually led to the death of Colonel Gaddafi and many others.

Throughout January 2011 there were almost 200-300 protests but the protests in February went beyond this mark.1 The protests grew with time, along with the number of protestors. Gadaffi’s administration vowed to hunt down all the conspirators and clean Libya house by house if required.  

However, events took a very swift turn when Gadaffi’s own soldiers began to join the rebels. These protests were known to be inspired by successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. After the death of its leader, and the NATO-led bombings, Libya turned into a failed state.

What started as a part of the revolutionary Arab Spring revolts in the Middle East, soon became a full-on civil war in Libya. The Libyan civil war can be divided into two phases. The first phase was free of military intervention whereas, the second phase started after the military intervention, authorized by United Nations Security Council Resolution in 1973.

The Civil War

The road to the war started on 15th February when anti-government demonstrations were held due to the death of human rights lawyer Fethi Tarbel. The demonstrations turned to active resistance in Benghazi on 18th February. 14 protestors had been killed by then by police forces in the previous days. Some of the members of the police force were influenced by the protestors and thus, ended up joining the demonstrations and riots.

Soon, the majority of the population was in the hands of the opposition and Gaddafi lost many of his supporters. On 19th February, a funeral procession was held on Katiba compound. Libyan security used water cannons and rubber bullets against the protestors which injured many and added to the public’s resentment. The government of Libya also orchestrated counter efforts against the revolts by broadcasting pro-government rallies on televisions.

As the protests grew, the demonstrators started gaining the territories of Tripoli and Benghazi. This made the government use aggressive methods against the demonstrators like firing live ammunition into crowds; they were also attacked form of warplanes, tanks, and helicopter gunships.

The government took measures to restrict communication and block the internet and telephone services throughout the country. On 21st February Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, gave a ruthless address to the nation by blaming the troublemakers for creating unrest in the country. He stated that further demonstrations could worsen the situation and lead to a civil war in Libya.

The Libyan government’s sudden violent approach immediately drew international attention. It attracted foreign leaders, state actors, and human rights activists and organizations. Libya was highlighted as the center of human rights violations against civilians. These violations carried out by the Libyan government made many officials resign and turn against the government. This included the Minister of Justice, a number of senior Libyan diplomats, and United Nations Ambassador to Libya. 

Many embassies flew pre-Gaddafi flags, therefore, condemning the regime and supporting the uprising. The support for Gaddafi trembled as the pilots of the jets that were supposed to carry out attacks against the demonstrators and bomb Benghazi chose to fly them to Malta so that they could abandon the attack.2

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On February 22, Gaddafi addressed the nation angrily and called the protestors “traitors” and provoked his supporters to fight for his regime. He declared that he won’t step down from his position and swore to remain in Libya. Furthermore, he denied all the previous attacks on the protestors.

Military units increasingly started supporting the protestors and this marked the weakening of Gaddafi’s regime. The anti-Gaddafi resistance started to take shape of an armed rebellion when the demonstrators started to obtain weapons from government depots. By February 23rd the rebel armed forces were able to expel most of the pro-Gaddafi forces.

The rebel armed forces took control of eastern Libya including the city of Benghazi and many Western cities. The Libya-Egypt border was opened which allowed foreign journalists to enter the country of Libya for the first time since the conflict began. Tripoli was still under pro-Gaddafi rule owing to the presence of major members, family, and the inner circle of the pro-Gaddafi parliament.

Once more Gaddafi was seen addressing the nation where he seemed extremely desperate and isolated. He accused the protestors, especially the youth who were at the core of the protest. He stated that the youth is high on hallucinogenic drugs and that all these demonstrations are being supported by Al-Qaeda.

Foreign leaders continued to denounce the attacks on the citizens. However, things began to get complicated when international efforts and pressure to end the bloodshed started to fade because the main priority shifted. The focus of foreign regimes was no longer on the citizens of Libya but rather on their respective embassies in the war-torn state.

The Gaddafi regime continued its attacks against the civilians around Tripoli but some of these attacks were successfully repelled by the protestors. On 25th February, another round of attacks took place on unarmed civilians who just came back from their Friday prayers.

UN Sanctions and Gaddafi’s Demise

International pressure mounted on Gaddafi once again after the foreign nationals were evacuated from Libya. Due to increased violence, UNSC approved the sanctions against Gaddafi’s regime; these sanctions imposed a ban on his travels, on the procurement of arms, and froze the assets of the Gaddafi family. On 28th February, the United States announced that $30 billion worth of Libyan assets were being frozen.

During the crisis, rebel forces were strengthening day by day. Seeing this, Gaddafi invited many foreign journalists and assured them that the situation was under control. In the interviews, he continued his old tactics of blaming Al-Qaeda and hallucinogenic drugs. He also claimed that western leaders are trying to colonize Libya and hence, the reason they are so adamant about Gaddafi resigning from his position. He insisted on still being loved by the people of Libya when the reality was the opposite.

During early March, the Transitional National Council (TNC) was formed by the local rebel forces. It acted as the opposition’s political and military leadership. It later established itself as the de facto government in Libya during the civil war. It provided services in the rebel-held areas. As the conflict continued forces that were loyal to Gaddafi gained strength. This made the international community worry about the diplomatic response to the ongoing conflict.

Countries started establishing contacts with the TNC but France was the first one to recognize it as an official part of the government, showing its true support. This also marked the point where the international community increased pressure on Gaddafi. On March 11, the European Union anonymously called out Gaddafi to step down. The African League passed a resolution that they will not intervene militarily and that negotiations should be carried out so that further destructions can be avoided.

On the 15th of March, on Gaddafi’s orders, a heavy assault was launched on the city of Ajdabiya. On March 17th, UNSC agreed to authorize military action against the dictatorship and to the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya for the protection of civilians. On March 19th, there were heavy strikes by the US and NATO; they used warplanes and cruise missiles.

Encouraged by the airstrikes, rebel forces launched an offensive to challenge the pro-Gaddafi forces. NATO continued its attacks on the sites that belonged to Gaddafi; many pro-Gaddafi officials claimed that NATO used a strategy that aimed at killing Gaddafi. Gaddafi’s son and his three grandchildren were killed in the airstrikes conducted by NATO.

A while later, an arrest warrant was issued by the International Criminal Court against Gaddafi, his son, and the Chief of Intelligence on the charges of launching attacks on civilians. The rebels soon started gaining power by first capturing Bab ul Azziziyah, the headquarter of Gaddafi, and then advanced to Tripoli and took control. As the rebels fought, the whereabouts of Gaddafi remained unknown. In October 2011, during the battle of Sitra, he was finally captured and killed at the hand of the rebels.

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The Current State of the War in Libya

In 2014, fighting to take over the capital—Tripoli—had become common. The General National Congress (GNC), Libya’s then governing body, and General Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) fought to dominate the capital and to take control of Libya. General Haftar launched Operation Dignity against the GNC and the Misrata Islamic bloc.3 Haftar was backed by different militia groups and his operation resembled a military coup.

To counter this operation and to drive the pro-Dignity supporter out of Tripoli, Misrata’s Islamic militia launched the Libya Dawn offensive. The main focus of this offensive was on ensuring the Islamists retained political influence.4

In 2015, the LNA and GNC reached a peace agreement in a meeting in Morocco. Both Fayez al-Sarraj, the Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya, and General Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army, attended the meeting. International actors like Russia, Turkey, UAE, US, Egypt, UK, France, Germany, Algeria, Congo, United Nations, and the African Union were also involved in the negotiations.

Both Libyan leaders had agreed to a long-term solution and to hold foreign military interference in the country. Yet, the permanent cease-fire deal they hoped for went nowhere. The fighting in Libya has been on and off ever since the Arab Spring uprising in 2011. Part of the problem was the killing of Muammar Gaddafi that year. Libya is a country full of different tribes and Gaddafi’s strategy towards governing Libya for 40 years was to play those tribes off against one another.

Once Gaddafi was out of the picture the place became lawless. Tribes and militias that have fought together to overthrow Gaddafi turned against each other to fill the power vacuum created by his death. Fighting hasn’t really stopped since and if it did it didn’t for long. Now, there’s a battle for Libya’s capital.

In the late 1960s, Haftar was Gaddafi’s friend and helped him rise to power. He became one of Libya’s top military leaders. In the late 80s, one of Haftar’s missions in Chad went wrong, causing him to fall out with Gaddafi and ended up living in the US for 20 years. He even became an American citizen. Haftar only came back to Libya once the Arab Spring hit. He eventually set himself up in the east and started consolidating power.

With help from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, he built what he called the Libyan National Army. It’s estimated the LNA has at least 25,000 fighters. He realized that there was a need for the classical, conventional Arab-Sunni military figures with an autocratic slant.

Libya has now been divided into two rival administrations. Haftar and his forces back one of them—the House of Representatives based in the east in the city of Tobruk. The other, known as the Government of National Accord, works out of Tripoli and is recognized by the United Nation. It relies on what’s left of Libya’s formal military as well as its militias to keep control.

Some of Haftar’s allies, like Egypt and UAE, have a problem with the GNA and its links to the Muslim brotherhood. These ideological currents are seen as a threat to the regimes that decided to support Haftar in 2014. The problem that Haftar has with any government, whether it’s above him, opposed to him, or one that has been appointed by him, is that he doesn’t want to share his power. An unpredictability surrounds his nature.

In 2019 it looked like peace talks were going somewhere. The UN and other world powers thought Haftar was on board but in April 2019, just days before a UN peace conference on Libya, Haftar surprised everyone with an assault on Tripoli, to seize the capital from the UN-backed government. Since then, Haftar has been fighting militias loyal to the GNA with the help of mercenaries, some of them from Russia.

The world powers are trying to get the rival sides to agree to a ceasefire but there are more countries involved in Libya than ever. The GNA side is backed by the UN, Italy, Qatar, and Turkey – its parliament recently approved sending ground forces to Tripoli.

While Egypt, the USA, France, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE are supporting Haftar. Khalifa Haftar brought together two warring sides—the USA and Egypt—together to pursue a common interest, oil. For both these states, Haftar could ensure smooth access to the oil fields and protect their oil revenues.5

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The world powers have different interests in Libya. Countries want the GNA to survive because they want drilling rights for oil and gas in the Mediterranean and in Libya, among other things. States, like Italy, want to protect their already established oil companies in Libya. Whereas, many others claim that they’re serious about stabilizing Libya to prevent it from becoming a second Syria.

The Aftermath

Even after eight years, Libya is still struggling over the prospect of peace and is unable to build its institutions. External actors have worsened the situation by providing money and weapons that destroyed the state even more.6 The country still continues to be divided among different tribes, ethnicities and this has greatly affected the politics of the failed state.

What was once a state with high living standards, is now shattered by continuous fights and rivalries in the post-Gaddafi era. Libya is not in a situation where it can stand on the principles of democracy. At the moment Libya faces a lot of problems like social tensions, widespread insecurity, and economic challenges.

The damage that these conflicts did to Libya is not going to resolve anytime soon. This conflict devastated the human security of Libya, displacing thousands of civilians and turning many into refugees. It is clear that Libyan people did not know the consequences of war when they decided to rebel because what they are now facing is far from over.

The increasing rate of migration from Libya will lead to further instability and economic difficulty. The Libyans are tired of the economic condition of the state; they face regular electricity shortages, with no electricity for up to 8 hours in a temperature of 40° Celsius. Most of the local workers are working illegally with no bank accounts.

Libya’s economy depended heavily on its oil exports. However, ever since the conflict took place the oil trade has been affected. The shortage of cash has led to depreciation. The civil war in Libya dropped the value of the state’s currency by 25%. The situation is deteriorating in terms of politics due to the presence of three governing bodies—two parliaments and the country’s armed militants—and foreign military intervention.

Terrible economic conditions have led to increased crime rates and poverty. People have started to miss the time of Gaddafi just because they believe that having one person in control was better than their current situation.


Peace in Libya after the civil war is still possible if the rivals leave their hostility behind and for once think about their citizens and rebuild the state. Haftar has tried to establish himself as the defender of the country. It helped in defeating the extremist forces that were operating inside Libya.

When it comes to foreign relations, Haftar met the Italian Prime Minister and opened up the possibility of a truce. In this truce, the French government can play the role of a mediator and help formulate and implement a cease-fire. Nonetheless, this possibility seems more like wishful thinking because the situation in Libya will not change overnight.

1 Maya Bhardwaj, “Development of Conflict in Arab Spring Libya and Syria: From Revolution to Civil War,” The Washington University International Review 1, no.1 (2012).  

2 Karl. P. Mueller, Precision and Purpose: Airpower in the Libyan Civil War, RAND Corporation, 2015.

3 Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Nathaniel Barr, “Dignity and Dawn: Libya’s Escalating Civil War,” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, 2015,

4 Ibid.

5 Henri Kouam, “The Libyan Civil War: Another Battlefield for Foreign Powers,” Paradigm Shift, September 2020,

6 James Siebens and Benjamin Case, The Libyan Civil War: Context and Consequences, THINK International and Human Security, 2012.


  • Bhardwaj, Maya. “Development of Conflict in Arab Spring Libya and Syria: From Revolution to Civil War.” The Washington University International Review 1, no.1(2012): 76-96.  
  • Gartenstein-Ross, Daveed, and Nathaniel Barr. “Dignity and Dawn: Libya’s Escalating Civil War.” International Centre for Counter-Terrorism. 2015.
  • Kouam, Henri. “The Libyan Civil War: Another Battlefield for Foreign Powers.” Paradigm Shift. September 2020.
  • Mueller, Karl. P. Precision and Purpose: Airpower in the Libyan civil war. RAND Corporation: 2015.
  • Siebens, James, and Benjamin Case. The Libyan Civil War: Context and Consequences. THINK International and Human Security, 2012.

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