Is Libya heading towards a democratic transition?

NEWS RELEASES – This week, The Guardian’s headlines read “Libya may not be ready for democracy, says military strongman”. This assertion compelled the International Center for Peace and Human Rights (CIPADH) to take a closer look at both the Libyan context before, during and after the 2011 revolution, as well as worrying recent developments, and ask: is Libya currently heading towards a democratic transition?


The Libyan context

Libya declared its independence in 1951, and was at that time considered one of the poorest and most underdeveloped countries in the world, with for instance overwhelming rates of illiteracy among the local population. [1] The Italian colonial rule had indeed destroyed the country’s development and economy by taking over all of its productive land and causing an estimate of 50’000 deaths in the suppression of colonial resistance. [2] Following Libya’s independence, its self-proclaimed leader King Idris al-Senussi (King Idris I), with the help of English officials, began conducting oil explorations. Exports commenced in 1963, and contributed immensely to the revival of the local economy, although the issue of disparities persisted: the wealth remained with a small elite. [3] These inequalities motivated in 1969 a military coup, leading to the proclamation of a new Libyan regime (the Libyan Arab Republic) presided by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. He proved to be a successful leader during his first years in power, encouraging prosperity and greater wealth redistribution, and establishing free education and health care for all citizens. [4] In 2010, Libya was ranked 53th in the UN’s Human Development Index, bearing witness to the country’s successful socio-economic turnover. [5] Nonetheless, throughout his years as head of state, Gaddafi strived for the maintenance of a traditional political-cultural structure, which could be described as a quasi-feudal system comprised of a dictator/autocrat (Gaddafi) ruling over different ‘tribes’ to whom Libyans paid their taxes. [6]

The Arab Spring

General dissatisfaction with this system was mainly what prompted the 2011 revolution, in the context of the unfolding Arab spring. Opposition to the government united that year to form the Libyan National Transition Council (NTC), which counted among its ranks former members of the Gaddafi administration as well as tribe leaders. [7] The armed struggle, later supported by the NATO alliance, could be described as the backbone of a revolution that concentrated more on overturning a regime through open conflict than by way of the civil protests seen in other revolting Arab countries like Tunisia or Egypt. The result was extensive human and material loss, as well as mass migration. [8] As argued by Vijay Prashad in his book titled Arab Spring, Libyan Winter, “Libya was not fated for an easy Arab spring”, as the domestic climate was more complex than other Arab countries’ because of the diverging public opinions, the strong military, and the previously mentioned NATO intervention, constituting the first foreign interference in the Arab Spring. [9] In this sense, what was meant as a democratizing process quickly evolved into an extremely detrimental movement for Libyan citizens.

After the NATO air strikes, Gaddafi was ousted, and the country subsequently began facing post-revolutionary challenges. Because of Libya’s instability and the resulting lack of central control, armed groups were attracted to the area. Indeed, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the Ansar al-Sharia organization used this security gap to assert control, and were the instigators of violence targeting both Libyan civilians, rebels, humanitarian envoys (the Red Cross car attacks), and foreign political officials (the Ansa al-Sharia group is accused of killing the US ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in 2012). [10]

After the Arab Spring

Efforts to build a peaceful, democratic regime were made, starting with the NTC’s (the interim government after the fall of Gaddafi) promises to set up a functioning justice system and a reconciliation process for officials of the old administration, to found national security forces and to disarm the militia. [11] Failure to act on these engagements, however, resulted in Libyans’ growing frustration, which prompted NTC’s replacement with the General National Congress (GNC) in the 2012 first Libyan free election. [12] The GNC later refused to step down despite the expiration of their mandate, triggering additional protests, and resulting in a violent 2014 second election during which violent rivalries between political parties commenced. [13] A central actor in this political battle is General Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army (LNA) and most notably ringleader of the offensive launched in 2016 (months after the UN Skhirat agreement to create a unified government with opposing parties) to take over national oil ports.  [14]

Post-Gaddafi, Libya thus continues to suffer from an important security crisis threatening the entire Sahel region, [15] national violence provoking the death of civilians and fighters alike [16], political divisions, and ISIS control [17].  

Recent developments

Since the outbreak of the conflict, the international community has strived to appease the violence and restore peace. The previously mentioned NATO intervention as well as the UN Skhirat agreement constitute some of the failed attempts to reestablish order. Most recently, Ghassan Salamé, head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, declared that his office was currently working on holding national elections before the end of 2018. [18] This objective is accompanied by a four-step plan consisting in amending the standing UN-sponsored political agreement, holding a UN-sponsored national conference for all of Libya’s political factions, adopting a new constitution, and finally electing a president and parliament. [19]

However, Khalifa Haftar suggested in a statement last week that Libya may not be on the road to a democratic transition despite UN endeavors, by stating: “The upcoming elections in the country must bring a solution to the current bloodshed, but if the situation and the chaos continue after the elections, then we will say ‘enough is enough’ and take action.” [20] Accordingly, many fear an escalation of violence in 2018, and challenge assertions that Libya is recovering from the civil war raging since 2011.


 By Manon Fabre - Research Assistant at CIPADH


[1]Aghayev, E. (2013). Analysis and background of the “Arab Spring” in Libya. European Researcher, 39(1-2), 193-198.

[2] IBID

[3] IBID

[4] IBID

[5] United Nations Development Program. Libya.

[6] Aghayev, E. (2013). Analysis and background of the “Arab Spring” in Libya. European Researcher, 39(1-2), 193-198.

[7] IBID

[8] IBID

[9] Prashad, V. (2012). Arab Spring, Libyan Winter. AK Press.

[10] Erdağ, R. (2017). Libya in the Arab Spring: From Revolution to Insecurity. Springer.

[11] Al-Jazeera. Libya Today: From Arab Spring to failed state.

[12] IBID

[13] IBID

[14] IBID

[15] Elmaazi, Abdullah. “Chaos in Libya Threatens Entire Sahel Region”. Al Monitor, May 3, 2013.

[16] Zway, Suliman Ali and Fahim, Kareem. “Dozens Are Killed in Libya in Fight With Militia”. The New York Times.

[17] The Guardian. Libya's Arab spring: the revolution that ate its children.

[18] Africa News. UN calls for elections in Libya by end of 2018.

[19] IBID

[20] The Guardian. Libya may not be ready for democracy, says military strongman.