Muammar Gaddafi is remembered as one of Africa’s most ruthless dictators, ruling for over fouro decades before facing an altogether destructive end. When reflecting on what drove the 2011 civil war in Libya and the eventual downfall of Gaddafi, there is no clear answer to the question ‘Why was Muammar Gaddafi overthrown?’. As was the case in numerous other Middle Eastern uprisings, the 2011 revolution was born of a mix of cultivated political and social unrest, with a root focus on Gaddafi’s violent attempts to suppress the growing opposition.
Gaddafi assumed power after staging a successful coup in 1969, becoming the de facto ruler of Libya while the country entered a period of rapid social and economic advancement, largely supported by Gaddafi’s aspirations for a state-sponsored version of Socialism. Libya’s wealth was founded on their reserves of petroleum, and the country’s position as a leader in crude oil and natural gas production made them the target of western intervention, who saw the abundance of resources as a major opportunity for exploitation.
Gaddafi’s politics were highly contested from his assumption of power, and Libyans found themselves subject to the iron-fisted rule of a dictator who was deeply paranoid and intolerant of criticism. His decisions to form a single party state and punish political opposition with extreme violence paved the way for a gradual yet radical deterioration in public morale, with the popular discontent spreading to other parts of the Arab world. There was also widespread outrage towards Gaddafi’s support for global terrorist organisations, his audacious attempts to undermine NATO, and his uncompromising rhetoric against the West.
The emergence of social media presented itself as a major opportunity for Libyans to vocalise their frustration with Gaddafi, given the ease of which users could connect and share their experiences across the region. On the 15th of February 2011, protesters in Benghazi took to the streets in a peaceful demonstration against Gaddafi’s rule, and the subsequent use of violence from the government served as an immediate call to arms for the opposition.
As the conflict intensified and other parts of the Arab world took up arms against their own oppressive leaders, a coalition of western forces, headed by the United States, descended on Libya and began to oppose the Gaddafi regime under the guise of the UN security council resolution 1973. This saw the formation of the National Transitional Council (NTC) and a rapid sequence of events saw the world’s attention shift back to the rebels who had initially taken up arms, while Gaddafi’s already slim chances of maintaining power began to look significantly bleaker as the NTC gradually gained ground.
The war came to an end on October 20th 2011 when rebel forces stormed Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, ultimately leading to his capture and death the following day. Despite the ongoing attempts to capture the ousted former leader, Gaddafi’s death signaled the end of the 8-month rebellion and the beginning of a new era for Libyan citizens.
The formal deposition of Muammar Gaddafi had a devastating impact on Libya’s economy. For the nation to emerge from debilitating conflict, it was estimated that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) would need to finance reconstruction projects to the tune of $12 billion, and as of 2020 nearly a third of the population continues to live below the poverty line.
The global oil price crisis in 2014 left oil revenues at an all-time low, and despite recent attempts by Libya’s National Oil Company to increase production, monthly revenues are a fraction of what they used to be prior to 2011. This has led to an increase in the number of Libyan citizens who are unable to access basic services, with chronic power outages, prolonged water shortages and a severe lack of infrastructure becoming commonplace throughout much of the country.
The unavailability of fuel and medicine has also contributed to a stark rise in medical costs and the subsequent reduction in public health coverage. Hundreds of thousands of Libyans have either decided to remain in the country or returned from exile in search of a better life, yet the currently tattered economy has made finding employment opportunities incredibly difficult.
Gaddafi’s legacy continues to divide opinion in both Libya and abroad. His death and accompanying celebration by the NTC further entrenched sectarian tensions, with minority groups such as the Tuareg and Toubou being seen as direct benefactors of Gaddafi’s ruthless suppression. In recent years, reports of forced disappearances and torture of government critics have become rife, coupled with a rampant surge in the recruitment of child soldiers.
The successor government is still struggling to unite the entirety of the country, and although there have been concessions with the 2015 signing of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), it is yet to be recognized by the UN as the official governing body of Libya. Over 20 different factions now exist in the country, with each vying for control and engaging in consistent acts of violence in attempt to assert their power.
In the meantime, the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) has assumed power and is attempting to rally a sense of national unity by granting citizens the right to participate in the electoral system. This, however, has done little to subdue ongoing clashes between the east-west regions and increase the legitimacy of the fragile interim government.
The international intervention was met with widespread criticism from all sides of the political spectrum, with both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch accusing the coalition of heavily contributing to civilian deaths by using excessive force and unfairly targeting Libyan civilians. This was particularly concerning for those sympathetic to Gaddafi’s cause, who argued that the international community took advantage of the unrest in an attempt to overthrow him in favour of a more pro-western leader.
This is reflected in the UN’s reluctance to intervene and lending their support to the NTC, who were accused of torturing and unlawfully imprisoning those who were thought to be loyal to Gaddafi. Furthermore, the UN also failed to enforce mechanisms designed to prevent human rights violations, resulting in a damaging legacy and leaving the nation in a state of political turmoil.
Impact on the People of Libya
The fall of Gaddafi did not bring about the hopes of democratization and peace that those in opposition may have envisioned, rather the country has been left in a precarious state of disarray, with the people having to struggle against a state of perpetual conflict. This is reflected in the huge number of people who either chose to remain in Libya throughout the conflict or opted to remain in exile, unable to return to the safety of their homes.
For the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been displaced since the war began, the prospects of safely returning to Libya grow dimmer by the day and the impact of Gaddafi’s rule and subsequent downfall is painfully present in their every day circumstances.
The effect of Gaddafi’s brutality has left a lasting mark on the people of Libya, with public sentiment reverberating through the current climate of violence and instability. Thus, lifting the nation from the brink of catastrophe and into the era of a stable and democratic government is a challenge met with much trepidation from the international community, and one that is far from certain.
Effects on the Region
The effects of the Libyan revolution on the Arab world have been far-reaching, with countries such as Yemen, Syria and Egypt revolutionizing against longstanding oppressive regimes in the years that followed Libya’s uprising.
The Arab Spring played a huge part in encouraging these uprisings and, while some have been more successful than others, the rapid spread of ideas and shared experiences across the region has signified a sea change in the way that people relate to their respective governments.
This in turn has allowed citizens to voice their opinions in previously unprecedented ways, while highlighting the importance of international support in the fight against oppressive dictatorships.
Militarization of Libya
Libya has been mired in conflict since the beginning of the civil war and, with no sign of a ceasefire in sight, both sides continue to heavily invest in military equipment and resources. This influx of weaponry has only served to escalate the conflict, allowing armed groups to assert control over oil fields and enrich themselves at the expense of the public.
The ongoing power struggle has fuelled increased interest from foreign powers intent on supporting the warring parties in order to spread influence and influence the outcomes of the war. This is reflected in the in influx of Turkish forces to the North of Libya to support the UN-backed GNA, as well as reports of Russia supplying equipment to Libyan National Army’s (LNA), a sign that the conflict looks set to continue for some time.
The Continued Impact
As Libya struggles to contemplate the future, the legacy of Gaddafi’s reign persists. The NTC’s declaration of victory and assumption of power failed to bring about the reinvigoration and revitalisation of the country expected at the conclusion of the conflict and, as of 2020, Libya still remains a divided nation, with no sign of lasting unity on the horizon.
Furthermore, Gaddafi’s downfall and the continued turmoil in the country have only served to paint a bleaker picture of what is to come, with the people of Libya facing an uncertain future plagued by social and economic hardship.
Root Causes of the Conflict
The ultimate destruction of Gaddafi’s rule can be attributed to a number of root causes. His excessive repression of the population along with his use of violence and terror tactics as a means to maintain power alienated the citizens of Libya and led to a widespread sense of resentment towards his rule.
In addition to this, the emergence of social media enabled protesters to speak out and share their stories with a wide audience, providing a platform to voice their frustrations with Gaddafi and spread the message of revolution across the region.
Lastly, the international community’s direct involvement in the conflict and increasing investment in the rebel groups only served to add fuel to the fire of opposition, resulting in an upsurge of violence and further deterioration in public morale.
Influence of External Forces
The presence of external forces has had a far-reaching impact on the conflict. The involvement of actors such as Russia, Turkey and the United States has meant that the war has taken a proxy form with each party vying for control of Libya’s resources, while the influx of weapons has only served to escalate the situation in the country.
The presence of foreign forces has also extended to other areas of conflict within the region, with many of the parties involved in the Libyan war also supporting other conflicts in the area. This has led to a state of perpetual violence in the region and a profound sense of powerlessness from those who lie in the middle of it.
It is clear that the ‘Why was Muammar Gaddafi overthrown?’ cannot be answered with anything other than a complex and multi-layered explanation. It is only when we take into consideration the myriad of political and social factors that contributed to the overthrow of Gaddafi, the regional and international influences which surrounded it and the continued devastating impact it continues to have on the people and nations of Libya, that we can begin to understand the reasons behind Gaddafi and the tragedy of his fall.