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In early 2011, amid a wave of popular protest in countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa, largely peaceful demonstrations against entrenched regimes brought quick transfers of power in Egypt. In Libya, however, an uprising against the four-decade rule of Muammar al-Gaddafi led to civil war and international military intervention.
An unusual protest erupted in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi on February 15, 2011. The protests enraged by the arrest of a human rights activist, protestors clashed with police and supporters of Libya’s longtime ruler, Muammar Gaddafi, who responded with brute force. The protesters called for Gaddafi to step down and for the release of political prisoners.
Birth of protests in Benghazi
As the protests intensified, with demonstrators taking control of Benghazi, the Libyan government began using lethal force against demonstrators. Security forces fired live ammunition into crowds of demonstrators. Demonstrators also were attacked with tanks and artillery and from the air with warplanes and helicopter gunships. The regime restricted communications, blocking the Internet and interrupting telephone service throughout the country.
Two days later, activists called for a day of rage. The protests spread like wildfire across Libya, whose neighborhood was already being buffeted by the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings. Longtime leaders, including Gaddafi, were ousted in the Arab Spring revolutions. Hundreds of thousands of lives were lost and millions were displaced from their homes.
Dream of a secular government remained a dream
Libya has struggled to remain unified since the Arab uprising in 2011 and the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi. During the chaos of an unraveling regime, armed groups proliferated, and Islamism emerged as a powerful new political force. In Libya’s first democratic election, voters largely opted for a secular government. But the transition was undermined by rivalries among secular parties, Islamists and independents coupled with escalating clashes among the new militias.
In 2014, parliament was plagued by political gridlock. Voter turnout dropped to only 18 percent in the 2014 poll from almost 62 percent in the 2012 election. The fragile new government disintegrated into two rival governments based in Tripoli and in Tobruk. Each government had its own armed factions.
Islamism entered the Libyan political theatre
Confrontations among Islamist and secular militias escalated nationwide. In the west, Islamists consolidated control over Tripoli, where they backed the rival General National Congress government. In the east, Khalifa Haftar rose to power. Haftar had been Gaddafi’s military chief of staff. He returned to Libya and launched “Operation Dignity” from his base in Benghazi to purge Islamists from Libya; he specifically targeted the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Islamic State’s emergence in late 2014 further complicated the crisis. It was initially active in eastern Derna, a longstanding jihadist breeding ground. It soon established other provinces. As the Islamic State expanded, the United Nations attempted to broker a deal. The Libyan Political Agreement, U.N.-brokered agreement in 2015 to integrate the eastern and western factions in a new Government of National Accord (GNA).
Libya stuck between modernization and mosque
Both governments were soon forced to turn their attention to the Islamic State’s growing presence. In April 2016, the GNA launched Operation Impenetrable Wall to expel the Islamic State from Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown. The Islamic State lost both Derna and Sirte by December 2016. But Libya was still plagued with the political divisions and security vacuums that had allowed ISIS to control chunks of Libyan territory.
4 years later, Libya is still mired in chaos. The country has two power centers, an internationally recognized government based in Tripoli and an internationally recognized parliament based in eastern city of Tobruk. The latter has appointed a government in the city of Beyda that does not have international recognition. In the meantime, weapons continued to proliferate; and organized crime was rampant in the economy. Libya was in no better shape than it was after the Gaddafi’s government’s fall in 2011. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has put down roots in the country and human traffickers exploit the chaos to funnel migrants north towards Europe.