A man in Zawiya, Libya, watches during a visit to the town by Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UNSMIL, Ian Martin, November 2011. (UN Photo/Iason Foounten)
A man in Zawiya, Libya, watches during a visit to the town by Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UNSMIL, Ian Martin, November 2011. (UN Photo/Iason Foounten)

It has been just over two years since Libya’s revolution, and the country continues to make headlines. The United Nations Support Mission in Libya is set to expire this week, with a likely renewal. To learn more about what has been going on in Libya and what we have learned from the country’s revolution, we speak to Middle East expert and CIGI Senior Fellow Bessma Momani.  

CIGI: Since the ouster of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, what progress has been made in Libya and what challenges continue to exist?

Bessma Momani: Since the ouster of Colonel Gaddafi, Libya has developed in its democratic institutions: parliament has sat; there has been a successful and very peaceful election, which brought to power a moderate government; there have been advances in civil society where organizations have been productive in addressing many issues that were underdiscussed during Gaddafi’s rule; women’s groups have been organized; and youth groups and other forms of non-governmental and civil society organizations have become active participants in the political process. With that said, these groups and organizations still have a long way to go in term of their development and level of discourse.

The other great advancement in Libya has been the media sector. Newspapers, magazines and other print media have all flourished after the fall of Gaddafi. The ideas, ideologies and paradigms of many groups are now openly expressed and viewed in the public domain. The level of discussion in these media sources is also quite fascinating and perhaps beyond the expectations of many Libyans. The types of talk shows on radio and television are also expanding. Issues that were never discussed under the regime of Gaddafi are being addressed, such as the role of Islam in society, the role of a ruler and the role of the family, and the responsibility of mothers and fathers. Many issues that were politically taboo are now being discussed in both print media and television programming. This is a real advancement in terms of the kind of intellectual discourse taking place in society.

That being said, there are still some serious challenges — especially in human security. There are several militias — many of which were little cells of rebel groups that fought in the revolution — that continue to operate throughout the country. It has been very difficult to demilitarize them and there are challenges, such as tribal politics, in getting these rebel groups into the national army. The other challenge is Libya’s east/west divide — the Tripoli versus Benghazi dimension. While the rebellion was fought primarily from Benghazi, the oil-rich eastern part of the country, the central power has historically always been in Tripoli, in the western part of the country. This means that many people in Benghazi want more rights and more power, and that the people in Tripoli are reluctant to accept decentralized government — causing tension within the country. Albeit it is not nearly as large of a problem as many perhaps thought it would be. Some sort of breakup of Libya along the lines of Iraq is not being demanded by most Libyans, so I think there is still a strong testament to the progress the country has made.

CIGI: As evidenced by the confirmation process for a new Central Intelligence Agency director, it is apparent that the 2012 attack on the United States’ diplomatic mission in Benghazi continues to occupy an important and relevant space in Washington and US foreign policy circles. What does this event say of Libya’s perception of the United States?

Momani: The September 11, 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi was indeed a setback for the US approach to the Arab Spring. In other words, many Americans felt that they were betrayed after working to liberate Libya from Gaddafi and then having State Department personnel attacked. That is one side of the story.

On the other side, unfortunately, Libyans’ reactions to the Benghazi attack have been poorly documented and underappreciated. The interesting thing is how vehemently opposed so many Libyans were to the attack and to the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens. There were tens of thousands of people who turned out in Tripoli and Benghazi to protest the murder. To see support for the United States after so many years of a negative legacy in the Middle East made this unprecedented. Again, as a reaction to how upset and frustrated people were at this negative and tragic turn of events, we saw thousands of people attack the presumed headquarters of a group that was sympathetic and perhaps indirectly responsible for the Benghazi attack. The reaction of Libyans has been very much in favour of the US liberation of Libya and it has turned the tide against right-wing groups in Libya. In effect, we saw this in the electoral results, where many Libyans voted against anti-American-style parties and political platforms.

CIGI: A United Nations report has shown that rebels in Mali have benefitted from corrupt officials in Libya. What does this teach us about the support offered by foreign powers to Libyan rebels?

Momani: Yes, the overthrow of Gaddafi had an indirect relevance to the rise of rebel groups in Mali. The UN report points out that many of the arms that were smuggled or brought into the country to overthrow Gaddafi were perhaps used or purchased by many of the Tuareg rebels in Mali.

Arming the rebels of Libya should have been better organized, better documented and better reassessed after the fact. In other words, the arms that were brought into the country were not properly accounted for at the end of the overthrow of Gaddafi. Many of the weapons were brought in or paid for by Qataris, and to a lesser extend the Saudis, and once the war was over there was no accountability for what weapons were brought into the country, who continued to hold those weapons and where the weapons went after the war. A buyback program was supposed to have been implemented in the country to ensure that the weapons returned to the new central army or government but unfortunately that program wasn’t effectively rolled out. And the black market prices for the weapons outside of the country were more lucrative than actually paying the amount that rebels wanted for those weapons.

This does teach us several lessons about arming rebel groups and has some relevance to what we see in Syria today. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to account for and reattain weapons given to rebels. Black market prices still prevail and one doesn’t know if rebels will continue to be on the side of the foreign powers that assisted them. The example that comes to mind is the mujahedeen in Afghanistan, which we know was supplied and financed by the United States and Western powers, but once the Marxist regime in Kabul was overturned many of those weapons went from the mujahedeen into the hands of al-Qaeda, which was basically an offshoot of the mujahedeen fighters. Caution needs to be applied in arming rebels and Libya serves as a new example.

Caution needs to be applied in arming rebels and Libya serves as a new example.
The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.
  • CIGI Senior Fellow Bessma Momani has a Ph.D. in political science with a focus on international political economy and is full professor and interim assistant vice‑president of international relations at the University of Waterloo.