TRIPOLI, Libya — February 17, 2011 will forever be remembered by Libyans as the “Day of Rage,” the day when tyrant Muammar Gaddafi was taken out of power by the will of dissenting citizens–with significant help from U.S.-led NATO forces. Months later in October, Gaddafi was killed by rebels. Gaddafi’s time of oppression had ended, and a new Libya was beginning to emerge, brimming with hope despite a future mired in uncertainty.
Headlines touted NATO’s Libyan intervention–its multilateral air support that decimated Gaddafi’s military bases–as a victory. Gaddafi, the icon of anti-Western totalitarianism, the authoritative ruler who kept his country’s oil riches for himself, was finally dead and his regime no more.
The lives of thousands of protesters were saved, moral righteousness was kept intact and the democratic spirit was allowed to live on in a demonstration of Western support for the Arab Spring.
Or so went common rhetoric at the time.
Today, factional violence dominates Libya’s two largest cities: the capital of Tripoli and Benghazi.
The political landscape remains foggy with no clear, favored party. Strong leadership has yet to be seen. Moreover, scores of militias–created by rebel leaders to quickly mobilize fighters against Gaddafi–now battle each other.
Western media often attempts to simplify the picture: Libya is a place where Islamists are pitted against liberals. But militias of every sort exist, formed for regional, ethnic and ideological reasons.
Most recently, Tripoli’s international airport made headlines. Ruled by militias from the western town of Zintan, the airport was attacked by armed groups from the city of Misrata. The Misrata militia–allied with various Islamist groups–surrounded the perimeter of the airport with tanks. Zintan forces responded by firing shells.
Staff and passengers fled, airliners were hit and the airspace was quickly closed. A ceasefire was finally reached, and the Zintan militia now continues to maintain limp control of the severely damaged airport.
The skirmish led to the evacuation of foreign nationals to Tunisia. This included U.S. Embassy staff members stationed in the capital city.
Meanwhile in Benghazi, thousands of protesters fill the streets to condemn the violence of Islamist groups in the city and encourage a ceasefire as sectional violence keeps mounting. Libyan armed forces have been mostly driven out by militant groups but are now joined by the National Army headed by Khalifa Haftar, a former army general who defected and led the rebel army in 2011. He has waged a war, deemed “Operation Dignity,” against all Islamist militants.
In total, more than 200 Libyans have lost their lives during the past month of fighting.
Yet, the consequences of the February 17 Revolution are not only limited to the grim emergence of immiscible militias in Libya. Unfortunately, as Libya continues to deteriorate, it serves as a major source of weapons to neighbouring regions, particularly Mali.
After Gaddafi’s removal from power, his Tuareg soldiers of Malian descent fled to their homeland where they fomented a separatist rebellion in the north. Bringing back Libyan weapons, they surprised governmental forces with their heavy machine guns and advanced technology. Al-Qaeda jihadists soon hijacked the rebellion and, as the insurgents gained control of the north, they instituted Sharia law, forbidding the broadcast of Western music and the consumption of alcohol.
In 2013, French forces intervened in an attempt to bring stability to northern Mali. This past year, on July 24, the separatists and the Malian government signed an agreement establishing a road map for future peace talks.
Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt face similar problems, as the jihadist groups that plague them have been fueled by weapons funneled in from Libya, a nation which now also acts as a safe haven where terrorist groups can reorganize.
It is hard to say, however, whether NATO’s 2011 intervention was justified considering the consequences. Many would like to claim that fewer lives would have been lost under Gaddafi’s oppressive regime, but such a counterfactual argument can never be proven right or wrong.
NATO did succeed in toppling the rule of Libya’s most hated man. But it was truly an oversight by NATO to think that a country without well-established institutions could transition into democracy without a strong helping hand. The result is a new Libya, one shrouded in violence and political agendas. But where Gaddafi’s rule lent no hope of a future, some hope remains today, however harrowed and unsteady it may be.
– Shehrose Mian
Sources: Al Jazeera 1, Al Jazeera 2, Al Jazeera 3, Al Jazeera 4, Al Jazeera 5, US State Dept., The Atlantic, BBC, Foreign Affairs, RT, NY Times, CounterPunch, Economist 1, Economist 2, Telegraph, Belfer Center, IB Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, War on the Rocks