The last days of Libyan Colonel Muammar Gaddafi 10 years ago evoke contrasting images of defiance, defeat and death.
In March 2011, in one of his last public appearances and with the rebellion against his regime gathering around him, the soon-to-be-deposed leader arrived at the People’s Congress in Tripoli riding an electric golf cart.
Entering the room, his face swollen and aged, Gaddafi punched the air before delivering a long and erratic speech to the assembled “representatives of the people”. The Libyans, he thundered, “would fight to the last man and woman” against foreigners if NATO intervened.
He offered money and a new constitution if those who rebelled against his government gave up their fight and blamed Al Qaeda and other actors. He warned Libyans that they would be “slaves” again if he left.
On the streets of his police state beyond the People’s Congress and its obedient representatives, Gaddafi’s notion of freedom was clearer: the people who spoke were disappeared and murdered; besieged towns and cities.
By August Gaddafi, his inner circle had “gone”, fleeing Tripoli after NATO jets led by Britain and France entered the war, his dominance of the skies decisively tilted the outcome in favor of the rebels.
In October, with the network of rebel forces closing in around the last blocks his forces still controlled in the city of Sirte, Gaddafi, who had disappeared from sight, would attempt to escape the encirclement, eventually caught and killed when he hid in a sewer. .
In hindsight, it was that final battle at Sirte that foreshadowed much of what would come next, including internal rivalries between east and west, and rival cities.
Characterized by fierce street fighting in which rival rebel brigades from Benghazi and Misrata converged on the regime’s last coastal stronghold, sometimes wading through waist-deep water on flooded streets, the rebels even then often seemed at odds.
Eclipsed by the bloodshed in Syria, the lessons of Libya of the last decade, the fall of Gaddafi and the conflicts that followed, they have hardly been interrogated and, if they have, they have been forgotten.
It would also be a conflict that would cast a long shadow on international relations and on the reputations of some.
In 2016, Barack Obama would speak of his disappointment with the European efforts after the fall of Gadaffi, suggesting, in particular, that David Cameron had been “distracted” and that had contributed to the “disorder” that followed. For former French President Nicholas Sarkozy, the dispute would be more personal and serious: seeing him embroiled in accusations that he had taken campaign money from Gaddafi for his 2007 elections.
Originally proposed as a model of humanitarian intervention under the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, known by its abbreviation of R2P, just two years after the fall of Gaddafi, Alan Kuperman in International Security magazine presented Libya not as a success story but as a case study in precisely how not to intervene.
For 2016, the chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs select committee, Conservative MP Crispin Blunt, was equally scathing with the intervention backed by then-Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.
Suggesting that while “UK policy in Libya was initially driven by a desire to protect civilians, he added:” We do not accept that he understood the implications of this, which included the collapse of the state, the failure of stabilization and the facilitation of Islamist extremism “. in Libya”.
The reality is that the tensions in Libya, perhaps with the exception of Syria, were always less understood than the drivers of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, where established political movements, though repressed, were much better understood.
And the fall immediately after the fall of Gaddafi was as swift as it was unexpected.
The large stockpiles of weapons held by the regime were rapidly dispersed, contributing to the destabilization of the region as a whole, in particular Mali.
Tens of thousands of African migrants in Libya, who are no longer welcome, were displaced at the beginning of a complex migration crisis that would later turn Libya into a path to Europe for large-scale human trafficking.
And the power vacuum that emerged allowed jihadist groups to flourish.
All were risks described prophetically in 2012 in Foreign Affairs magazine by Zahia Zoubir, who warned that Libya was at risk of fracturing amid competition between armed groups. “The biggest challenge for Libya … is to avoid partition, as happened in Sudan, or worse still, ‘Somalization’, where the state cannot control the various militias that impose their own laws in their respective territories.”
Sometimes the rift can be traced back to a pre-modern era of city-states, each with its own army, guarded by checkpoints and city gates dumped by truck and junk containers.
As Claudia Gazzini, the Crisis Group Libya specialist who has closely followed events in the country for the past decade, points out, the summary execution of Gaddafi in Sirte surrounded by his enemies and captured in a horrifying video, far from marking the end. of state violence in Libya. it only made it more widespread.
And for Gazzini it is not at all clear that without the intervention of NATO the Gaddafi regime would have been overthrown.
“If you start with the NATO-led intervention, the big lesson learned was that this planted the seeds for the disorder that followed. A highly idealistic invocation of the responsibility to protect led to a total and violent regime change.
“The way Gaddafi was shot and killed instilled the idea that it is okay to kill, that it was okay to raid places like Tarhouna and Beni Walid. It was a culture in which the militias were empowered to attack anyone they thought was linked to the regime ”.
Lacking even the most superficial plans for after the fall of the regime, Libya divided into regional and urban militias that tried to use their force of arms to negotiate political power, including control of ministries, Gazzini and others note. This offered an avenue not only to increase external intervention by regional actors, including those in the Gulf and Turkey, but also by violent Islamist groups.
In an article for Chatham House two years ago examining the violent aftermath of Gaddafi’s fall, Georges Fahmi argued that the Libyan experience also had broad implications for the transition of countries from authoritarian states.
“Resorting to violence is the fastest way to end any hope for democratic change,” suggested Fahmi. “The protesters who decided to take up arms offered their regimes the opportunity to reframe political uprisings as a civil war, as was the case in Syria. Even when the armed groups succeed in overthrowing the regime, their presence endangers the subsequent transition phase, as [was] the case in Libya “.
In Libya, which initially saw a multiplicity of groups, defined by tribal and regional loyalties in dividing the country between east and west, they compete for political loot and resource-rich areas, including key cities like Mistrata and Zintan.
Equally destabilizing was the competition between the eastern “Cyrenaica” country and Benghazi and the government-controlled areas in Tripoli in the west.
However, as Gazzini makes clear, far from being low-key, competitions in post-Gaddafi Libya often dangerously overlapped and were exacerbated by international concerns, including the EU’s interest in security and the closure of migration routes to Europe.
“There was no plan to build an international state except for the idea of launching a UN mission to organize elections. There was no strong will or capacity for anything else, ”he said.
“Then there was the ambiguous approach of the international community to support the needs of the Libyan security sector and not to recognize that there was a tentacular jihadist network that was making its way and the consequent polarization of the discourse on radical groups with political ends on all sides. .
When jihadist groups came to be seen as a threat, the response was to outsource the problem to those deemed to be fighting effectively against them, including the eastern warlord Khalifa Haftar, whose ambitions would see him besiege the government-backed government. UN in Tripoli. in a failed bid for power.
In the name of fighting terrorism, Haftar would gain the support of various foreign players, including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia, France, and Saudi Arabia. That, in turn, exacerbated tensions in the region between Turkey, which would move to support the government in Tripoli, and the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
Issandr El Amrani, an expert on the region who now works with the Open Society Foundations in Amman, worries that some lessons have been missed in what he sees as a sometimes “dishonest” and focused debate among those who opposed the intervention in first place and its proponents.
“Those who point to the rise of Isis and the collapse of the country into caudillismo ignore the reality that there was a real risk of a massacre in [by Gaddafi forces in the rebel centre of] Benghazi in 2011 and that a considerable number of Libyans called for intervention. “
Instead, Amrani says, senior Russian officials, including Vladimir Putin, who backed calls to intervene under the Responsibility to Protect aegis, would feel “ripped off” by what became a regime change intervention. He suggests it was a breach of trust that may have “killed” the appeals to the responsibility to protect principle “for decades to come.”
“Libya as it stands sums up the messiness of great power politics as it is now. There was no united international leadership. No American leadership after the Americans walked away from the peace process from 2014 to 2017 after Trump came to power. There was no interest, except for the fight against terrorism. “
However, both Gazzinni and Amrani are more optimistic about the renewed peace process, as they perceive a war fatigue in Libya after a decade of conflict.
“There seems to be a real war fatigue across the country. But the Libyans seem to have regained their reason and want a Libya that they have been deprived of in the various rounds of war and political disputes, ”Gazzini said.
“On top of that, Libya was polarized at the peak of the dispute and tensions within the Gulf between Turkey and various Arab capitals. Now we are seeing that gradually ends. “
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism