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Research Report

The Libyan Tragedy and Its Meaning: The Wages of Indecision

Eran Lerman
Copyright Date: Dec. 1, 2016
Pages: 49

Table of Contents

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  1. (pp. 1-4)
  2. (pp. 5-6)
  3. (pp. 7-8)
  4. (pp. 9-12)

    The sad story of the disintegration of Libya over the past five years has been overshadowed by the even more catastrophic dismemberment of the Syrian state. There, the dictatorship has been able to hold onto power in large parts of the country, causing a much larger-scale civil war and leading to immense bloodshed and massive dislocation.

    For good reason, the events in Syria have captured the attention of the world, generating intense (but futile) diplomatic initiatives led by US Secretary of State John Kerry and, much more dramatically, an extensive (and effective) military intervention by the Russian Federation. The flow...

  5. (pp. 13-18)

    It came as no surprise when the wave of protests that came to be known (incongruously, in retrospect) as “the Arab Spring” spread to Libya in mid-February 2011. The country was sandwiched between two neighbors whose dictators had already been overthrown: first Ben Ali in Tunisia; then Mubarak in Egypt. Libya had been led for more than forty years (!) by Muammar Qadhafi, an erratic and self-obsessed potentate with dynastic designs and a long history of brutal repression.

    Libyans courageously used the internet to launch a “Day of Anger” on February 17, 2011. Qadhafi's regime reacted violently, using Libyan troops...

  6. (pp. 18-22)

    In effect, the new Libya ceased to be a real state even before it was born. The damage done during Qadhafi's years was too deep, and the constructive forces too feeble, for the political transition to succeed. Some hope was offered by the relatively impressive results of the July 2012 elections. Out of the 80 seats allotted to parties, almost half (39) were won by the liberally oriented National Forces Alliance, led by former transitional Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril. The Justice and Construction Party, on the other hand – like other similarly named parties in the region, a front for...

  7. (pp. 22-27)

    It is at this point that the role played in the Libyan tragedy by the regional “game of camps” comes into sharper focus.37 It had, in fact, been a major factor from the beginning of the uprising against Qadhafi, which drew both inspiration and support from neighboring states.

    In March 2011, when the regime was still hoping to win backing from the new military leadership in Egypt, the rebels put their case before the Arab League. It was not difficult to find rival Arab potentates with scores to settle with the Libyan dictator. This was, after all, a man who...

  8. (pp. 27-29)

    As pro-Egyptian forces, backed by the regional Camp of Stability, continued to fight Turkish-backed Muslim Brotherhood elements across several fronts in Libya, a third camp – Salafi-jihadi elements hostile towards both – took advantage of the situation to gain a significant foothold on Libyan shores. (The fourth regional camp, the Iranian regime and its adjuncts, tried to penetrate but largely failed. Libyan society is unfriendly towards the Shi'a and hostile to any attempt to convert Sunnis (tasha'yyu'), an activity Iran is suspected of promoting).52

    Salafi-jihadi groups, some loosely associated with al-Qaeda, were active in Libya even before Qadhafi fell. In...

  9. (pp. 30-39)

    The international role in Libya followed a pattern of intervention, withdrawal, neglect, and then a renewed realization that the Libyan factions cannot be left to their own devices. It is a story of careful short-term planning that failed to prevent a long-term disaster (as President Obama admitted in his conversations with Jeffrey Goldberg, “It didn't work”). It also involved a deliberate American attempt, in Obama's words, “to prevent the Europeans and the Arab states from holding our coats while we did all the fighting…It was part of the anti-free rider campaign.”

    The original Western intervention, in 2011, was relatively well...

  10. (pp. 39-42)

    The twists and turns of history that led to Qadhafi’s overthrow, Libya's descent into civil war, and the attempt to put the country back together again have been complex, occasionally contradictory, and difficult to understand even for those in the thick of things. It led the US and the west to an initial intervention, driven by “R2P” (responsibility to protect) sentiments, and to a hard-headed but poorly thought-out abdication. Since 2015, the west has embarked on a renewed intervention combined with a delicate diplomatic exercise in government-building. This study has been a necessarily oversimplified attempt to follow the contours of...

  11. (pp. 43-47)
  12. (pp. 48-48)