Post-Revolution Libya’s Internal State-Building Challenges

Post-Revolution Libya’s Internal State-Building Challenges

“The 17 February 2011 Libyan revolution brought a sense of freedom to the Libyan people. Eight years later, the country has erupted into another war, with numerous internal state-building challenges. Many of these challenges are rooted in the Gaddafi regime.”

by Shahed Warreth

Libya has become a deeply divided country in the eight years following the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011. Facing many challenges, it has yet to stabilise as warring factions, all interested in ruling, have made it difficult for Libya to find peace, thereby plunging the country into a civil war. Libya is split between the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Council of Deputies. Libya’s current issues, such as this divide, stem from Gaddafi’s reign. In order to understand the challenges that the country faces, we must first understand the foundations of fear, tyranny, and corruption it was built on prior to the revolution.

Prior to the Gaddafi era, Libya was a federal monarchy with three distinct provinces between 1951-1963: Tripolitania to the northwest; Cyrenaica, also known as Barqa, in the east; and Fezzan in the southwest.[1] The federal form of governance was soon abolished, and with it the three provinces were re-structured into baladiyat. The 1969 coup d’état led by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi brought with it a new way of arranging the country, the latest version being the 22 shabiyat established in 2007.

As a result of Gaddafi’s coup, the once stable and progressive monarchy transformed into a dictatorship distinctly lacking infrastructure and institutions.[2]Under Gaddafi’s oppressive regime, there was a sense of powerlessness felt among the Libyan people. This includes the torture, imprisonment, and murder of anyone who opposed Gaddafi’s regime, including those living abroad.[3] When Gaddafi’s security state finally collapsed in 2011, it left a ‘huge political vacuum’ that multiple forces are competing to fill without any overall sense of direction’.[4]

The 2011 revolution gave the Libyan people a sense of freedom but brought about another set of problems, one of which is ethnic divisions. There was and remains a strong sense of tribalism in Libya compared to its neighbouring countries[5]. During his reign, Gaddafi attempted to diminish tribal importance and influence by pitting tribes against each other and adopting an ideology of pan-Arab Nationalism[6]. Gaddafi then used these tribes to reassert his power. Nepotism was bountiful as loyal tribes were given high ranking government jobs, while others were sidelined.[7] Furthermore, tribal loyalty to the regime was used to undermine the military. In post-revolution Libya where ‘the state is traumatically absent’, tribes offer a form of social protection that the state has failed to provide[8].

After several attempts by the military to overthrow Gaddafi, a new security force was created, the leaders of which were Gaddafi loyalists. They fought for Gaddafi during the revolution, while many generals and soldiers defected.[9]The tribal mindset and way of leading can still be found in post-revolution Libya. This in turn led to the instability and chaos that Libya is facing today. In contrast, neighbouring Tunisia has become relatively stable. This is due to the strong military presence in the country, something which Gaddafi failed to provide in order to strengthen his control. Had there been a strong and unified military after the revolution, Libya may have become a united country without militias and numerous parties vying for power. By segregating the populace, Gaddafi played on his influence so he could remain in power. He exploited tribal differences and pitted them against each other, thereby inadvertently enabling these differences to exist even today.

The rebel forces of the revolution were also divided, and militias were and remain to be plentiful. Instead of establishing an army, the government has instead hired these militias to enforce order.[10] No job prospects or access to training may motivate some to join militias,[11]meaning these militias are a hotbed of the unemployed. Libya has suffered from a high unemployment rate both before and after the revolution, particularly among youths.[12] While different sources give different estimates for the unemployment rate in Libya, the International Labour Organization estimates that the total unemployment rate was 17.6% in 2010, 19.6% in 2011, and 17.3% in 2018.[13] The lack of jobs, and prospects of a bleak future forces youths into a life of militias and violence. In a society where there is low cash flow and no unemployment benefits, some Libyans see this as their only option. There is a societal expectation in Libya for men to be the primary breadwinners, thereby creating a societal pressure to remain employed, even if it means joining a militia. Those who are educated are also unemployed as many graduates lack the necessary skills across different industries and sectors.

Libya’s economy is heavily dependent on public sector employment, and hydrocarbons, with the latter accounting for 95% of exports in 2013. However, oil exports have decreased, and the economy has fluctuated greatly since 2011, some years being the fastest growing economy in the world, while other years being the slowest.[14]Without the revenue it generates, the government cannot provide a sufficient number of jobs in order to steer its citizens away from a life of militias. Ironically, it is these militias, along with the Libyan National Army (LNA), who have largely seized control of the oil production.[15]

Another obstacle that Libya must overcome is the lack of a coherent government. The National Transitional Council (NTC) of the revolution left Libyans unsatisfied, and was ineffective in quashing the militia problem.[16] Their successors, the General National Congress (GNC), also failed to govern effectively yet have refused to step down.[17] Neither have been successful in drawing up a constitution, disarming the militias, and forming a unified army. Moreover, the GNC formed 99 new baladiyat after the revolution, which later grew to 108. However, in 2012, the Cyrenaica Transitional Council (CTC) was formed. Renamed in October 2013 to the Council of Cyrenaica in Libya (CCL), the CCL declared Cyrenaica an autonomous province, bringing the old divisions back to the forefront.[18]

Though the GNA and the Presidential Council (PC) to the west of Libya are recognised internationally as the legitimate government, they have not gained the support of the Council of Deputies and the House of Representatives (HoR) to the east.[19] The Council of Deputies does however back the LNA, headed by General Khalifa Haftar who had previously served in Gaddafi’s army but later tried to overthrow him, and who’s military has now expanded into southern Libya.[20] However, it is clear that both governments ‘may actually be in a worse position than that enjoyed by [Gaddafi, whose] militias and military forces were loyal to him; the militias in Libya today answer to themselves and secondarily to their paymaster government’.[21] Rather than coming together in order to rebuild the country, they have instead chosen to fight for power and control and, in the case of the militias, to push their Islamist agenda.

Eight years after the revolution, Libya remains in conflict, with many of the challenges largely stemming from its past. After 42 years of living under a dictatorship, the Libyan people are once again living in a time of oppression and fear. The mindset of the Gaddafi era is still present throughout Libya; the struggle for dominance and power can still be found between warring factions looking to control the country and its resources. Post-revolution Libya has seen the rise of federalism as the citizens are fearful that if one government rules, the country will revert to old ways.[22] While the country has been liberated from Gaddafi’s authoritarian regime, it has been plunged into a never-ending conflict. It is clear that there is more to do in order to obtain peace and security in such a turbulent nation.


[1] Pack, J. and Barfi, B. (2012) In War’s Wake: The Struggle for Post-Qadhafi Libya. Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, p. 11;
Pusztai, W. (2016). ‘Does Federalism Have a Future in Libya?’ Atlantic Council, 22 August. Available from: http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/does-federalism-have-a-future-in-libya.
[2] Fitzgerald, F., and Megerisi, T. (2015) Libya: Whose Land Is It? Property Rights and Transition. London: Legatum Institute. Available at: https://www.li.com/activities/publications/libya-whose-land-is-it;
St. John, R.B. (2012) Libya: From Colony to Revolution. Oxford: One World Publications.
[3] Diana, E. (2014) ‘“Literary Springs” in Libyan Literature: Contributions of Writers to the Country’s Emancipation’, Middle East Critique, 23(4), pp. 444.
[4] Randall, E. (2013) ‘After Qadhafi: Development and Democratization in Libya’, The Middle East Journal, 69(2), p. 210.
[5] Randall, 2013;
Cherstich, I. (2014), ‘When Tribesmen do not act Tribal: Libyan Tribalism as Ideology (not as Schizophrenia)’, Middle East Critique, 23(4), pp. 405-421;
Meijer, R. (2015) Citizenship Rights and the Arab Uprisings: Foundation for a New Political Order in the Middle and North Africa. Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, p. 4.
[6] El-Katiri, M. (2012) State-Building Challenges in a Post-Revolution Libya. Pennsylvania: U.S. Army War College, p. 11.
Fitzgerald and Megerisi, 2015.
[7] St. John, 2012;
Geha, C. (2016). Civil Society and Political Reform in Lebanon and Libya: Transition and Constraint. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
[8] Cherstich, 2014.
[9] St. John, (2012); Gaub, F. (2013) ‘The Libyan Armed Forces between Coup-proofing and Repression’, Journal of Strategic Studies, 36(2), p. 235.
[10] Larémont, R.R. (2013) ‘After the Fall of Qaddafi: Political, Economic, and Security Consequences for Libya, Mali, Niger, and Algeria’, Stability: International Journal of Security and Development, 2(2), http://doi.org/10.5334/sta.bq;
Roumani, J. (2014) ‘Libya on the Brink: Insecurity, Localism, and the State Not Back In’, Middle East Institute, 12 March. Available at: https://www.mei.edu/publications/libya-brink-insecurity-localism-and-state-not-back.
[11] Mezran, K. (2013) ‘A Holistic Approach to Security in Libya’, Atlantic Council, 10 July. Available at: https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/a-holistic-approach-to-security-in-libya.
[12] El-Katiri, 2012, p.7.
[13] International Labour Organization (2018) ‘Key Indicators of the Labour Market: Unemployment Rate – ILO modelled estimates’, International LAbour Organization, November. Available at: https://www.ilo.org/ilostat/faces/ilostat-home.
[14] Larémont, 2013;
Mattes, H. (2014) ‘Rebuilding the National-Security Forces in Libya’, Middle East Policy, 21(2), p. 97;
Fitzgerald and Megerisi, 2015;
MENA-OECD Economic Resilience Task Force (2018) Country case study: Building economic resilience in Lebanon and Libya, p. 34. Available at: https://www.oecd.org/mena/competitiveness/ERTF-Jeddah-2018-Background-note-Case-studies-Lebanon-and-Libya.pdf;
International Monetary Fund (2018) World Economic Outlook: Real GDP Growth (Libya). Available at: https://www.imf.org/external/datamapper/NGDP_RPCH@WEO/OEMDC/ADVEC/WEOWORLD/LBY.
[15] Chivvis, C.S. and Martini, J. 2014. Libya After Qaddafi: Lessons and Implications for the Future. Santa Monica, California: RAND Corporation;
El Wardany, S. ‘Libya Oil Boss: Biggest Field Won't Restart Until Militia Leaves’, Bloomberg, 25 February. Available at: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-02-25/libya-oil-boss-biggest-field-won-t-restart-until-militia-leaves;
Assad, A. (2019) ‘From Abu Dhabi, Libyan officials announce lifting force majeure on Sharara oilfield’, The Libya Observer, 26 February. Available at: https://www.libyaobserver.ly/news/abu-dhabi-libyan-officials-announce-lifting-force-majeure-sharara-oilfield;
Lacher, W. (2019) ‘Libya’s Conflicts Enter a Dangerous New Phase’, German Institute for International and Security Affairs, SWP Comment No. 8, February. Available at: https://www.swp-berlin.org/en/publication/libyas-conflicts-enter-a-dangerous-new-phase/.
[16] El-Katiri, 2012; Achcar, G. (2016) Morbid Symptoms: Relapse in the Arab Uprising. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.
[17] Roumani, 2014.
[18] Kane, S. (2012). ‘Federalism and fragmentation in Libya? Not so fast…’ Foreign Policy, 20 March. Available from: http://foreignpolicy.com/2012/03/20/federalism-and-fragmentation-in-libya-not-so-fast/;
Pack, J. (2012). ‘Federalism in Libya: Tried and failed’, Al Jazeera, 20 April. Available from: https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/04/201241871355584880.html.
[19] Fitzgerald, M. (2016) ‘Libya’s Worsening Turmoil – Bad for Everyone’, Global Geneva, 20 October. Available at: https://www.global-geneva.com/libyas-worsening-turmoil-bad-for-everyone/;
Toaldo, M. (2016) ‘A Quick Guide to Libya’s Main Players: Political Actors’, European Council on foreign Relations. Available at: https://www.ecfr.eu/mena/mapping_libya_conflict.
[20] Lacher, 2019.
[21] Larémont, 2013, p.2.
[22] Geha, 2016; Mattes, 2014; Roumani, 2014.

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