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Libya's ongoing crisis shouldn't be blamed on the 2011 intervention

Many more would have died had Gaddafi stayed in power - the problem is that action has not been followed by proper planning
Former British Prime Minister David Cameron visits Benghazi, Libya, in September 2011 (AFP)

To Kosovan Albanians, former British prime minister Tony Blair was a hero. While his reputation at home is toxic, he is still hailed in Kosovo for taking on the Serbian military. 

While more than 10,000 Kosovans were killed and entire villages wiped out by Slobodan Milosevic and his forces in a campaign of ethnic cleansing, Blair was seen to have saved them from further bloodshed. Many young men born in 1999 - the year of the intervention - or afterwards, were named after him. 

It is unlikely that Libyans will be doing the same with former prime minister David Cameron any time soon - but not for the reasons you might expect

Extended chaos

In February 2011, as he watched columns of tanks approaching the Libyan city of Benghazi while mass protests spread across the country, Cameron was pushing the international community for a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent similar bloodshed. 

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In his recently published memoir, Cameron writes that doing nothing in Libya would have been to “facilitate murder”. With Iraq still fresh in the memory, many rushed to decry any form of intervention. But Libyans who watched in horror as long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi’s forces edged closer and closer to Benghazi are still grateful for what NATO did. Thousands are alive today because of the alliance’s actions. 

Yet, the chaos that has extended since then cannot be ignored. Eight years on, it’s time for a more realistic and nuanced appraisal of the intervention.

The intervention was extremely successful in preventing a massacre of civilians, but failed to see beyond this or to produce anything close to a stable, democratic nation

Libyans took to the streets in overwhelming numbers in 2011, emboldened by other regional uprisings, to demand an end to the repression they had lived through for 42 years. Gaddafi presided over what was possibly North Africa’s most brutal authoritarian regime; rather than capitulating in the face of the protests, he responded with a brutal and far-reaching crackdown.

Gaddafi’s forces responded to protests with open fire, covert torture units, and promises of more blood in return for calls for freedom and dignity. He promised to purify Libya “alley by alley”, room by room, of traitors; the threat to civilian life was imminent and very real.

The intervention was extremely successful in preventing an immediate massacre of civilians, but failed to see beyond this or to produce anything close to a stable, democratic nation. This success should not be underestimated; in contrast, Syria’s war did not end, with the dictator’s killing machine claiming half a million lives and displacing more than half of the population.

Leaders not absolved

As Libyans who saw family members die, lose homes, and become displaced during the revolution and since, we are grateful to the leaders who insisted that saving civilian lives was important. But that doesn’t mean that they are absolved of what came afterwards. 

Both the Libyan people and their international allies were full of hope for what their nonviolent protests would bring. But eight years on, a war is being waged - yet again - by an internationally supported, self-promoted military man, on Libya’s capital. Civil war has been the main feature of Libya since the revolution, and the country has been riddled with instability and insecurity since the toppling of Gaddafi. 

Smoke rises after an air strike near the Libyan capital Tripoli on 29 June (AFP)
Smoke rises after an air strike near the Libyan capital Tripoli on 29 June (AFP)

Multiple factions have been fighting for control for years, particularly within the capital. With competing governments in the country’s east and west, and armed militias accountable to nobody controlling large parts of the country and exerting coercive political influence, Libya is effectively unable to provide for its people. 

Poverty is common, salaries go unpaid, inflation has multiplied the cost of living, and intermittent electricity blackouts and water shortages have gone on for years. The situation today is just as bad, if not worse, than it was in 2011.

In exploring how Libya got to this point, analysts, journalists and politicians often point the finger at the 2011 intervention. Many have said that the mess we’re in is what inevitably ensues when the international community intervenes; that action has been dubbed a “failure”. But this is far from true. 

Responsibility to protect

Libya was the first real test of the responsibility to protect doctrine, and it is now regularly presented as an excuse for non-intervention elsewhere. Some even argue that Libya “killed” any credibility for a humanitarian doctrine. But if it wasn’t for NATO in 2011, Benghazi the way we know and love it would most likely not exist today, demolished as Hama, Homs, Idlib and countless Syrian cities have been.

It’s easy to ascribe the chaos in Libya today to the intervention, but while this is comfortingly simple and familiar, it is lazy, and based on a failure to understand the series of events that took place after Gaddafi was killed. 

The international community has failed Libya
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In September 2011, shortly after Gaddafi’s fall, David Cameron and then French president Nicolas Sarkozy visited Libya. “It is great to be in free Libya,” Cameron said, as crowds turned out to cheer the pair, making the same mistake that many Libyans did in assuming the revolution had already succeeded. 

“Your friends in Britain and France will stand with you as you build your country and build your democracy for the future,” he promised - but in practice, that support was in short supply, particularly as time wore on and attention drifted elsewhere. 

A 2016 UK foreign affairs committee report criticised Cameron for failing to develop a plan for post-intervention Libya, pointing out that the amount of funds spent on development - £25m ($31m) - was less than a tenth of the cost of the actual intervention. 

The report stated that new Libyan ministers were “overwhelmed with plans and project proposals”, and that there was a lack of institutional capacity to manage them. American president Barack Obama echoed this criticism, saying that he “had more faith in the Europeans, given Libya’s proximity, being invested in the follow-up”, and that instead Cameron became “distracted by a range of other things”.

Undermining democracy

By this time, the political situation had deteriorated amid worsening security and disputed elections. As the country spiralled after the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, individual European and Arab states began backing factions and groups according to their short-term interests, directly undercutting the elected government and undermining democracy.

Meanwhile, arms continue to flow into the country, unhindered by the UN embargo that no country has appeared interested in enforcing. 

All of these factors show that the collapse of the Libyan state was not inevitable, but a product of post-intervention choices and neglect, rather than the intervention itself. 

Libyan fighters loyal to the Government of National Accord clash with forces loyal to strongman Khalifa Haftar on 20 April (AFP)
Libyan fighters loyal to the Government of National Accord clash with forces loyal to strongman Khalifa Haftar on 20 April (AFP)

Much of the internal conflict could have been de-escalated with early mediation, rather than a UN process of international conferences that began far too late and are scorned by Libyans as an absurd waste of money - a way of stitching up Libya’s future without their input. The UK’s role gradually shrank to nothing as a consequence of its government’s failure to maintain attention, and all the good intentions of the intervention fell short.

Ironically, those who blame the 2011 intervention for the crisis in Libya are guilty of precisely the same mistake as the intervention itself: not paying any further attention to the country after September 2011, until it had fallen apart. They accuse advocates of intervention of seeing it as the solution to every problem, but they themselves disregard all nuance, advocating avoidance as the solution, irrespective of the problem. 

Challenging atrocities

Libya was never Iraq. The intervention was based not on dodgy dossiers of faked evidence and lies, but on the live unfolding of crimes against humanity. Arguments for or against humanitarian intervention aren’t one-size-fits-all, and are not interchangeable across every scenario. 

In Libya’s case, outside intervention was the only hope of preventing further mass bloodshed - a necessary but flawed intervention, the lessons of which must be learned. History could still judge Libya as a success, but only if the mistakes are corrected. 

Apathy has emboldened Gulf dictatorships to intervene maliciously, as in Yemen, where a proxy war has caused the worst humanitarian crisis of our time

There are plenty of examples of how non-interference causes great loss of life, and often allows crimes to continue for far longer than they should. Libya is not an example of an intervention failing, but of an intervention done poorly and for the wrong reasons, yet still having some very important successes. 

The lack of willingness of international actors to challenge atrocities has led to a more dangerous and unstable world. Apathy has emboldened Gulf dictatorships to intervene maliciously, as in Yemen, where a proxy war has caused the worst humanitarian crisis of our time.

The Libya intervention did not kill the responsibility to protect doctrine, but presents the best example of how much the international community can achieve when foreign policy is shaped in the interests of world peace, democracy and the value of civilian life. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Nadine is a British-Libyan journalist based in London, with a special interest in North Africa and post-colonialist theories.
Ahmed Gatnash is a founder of Kawaakibi Foundation, a human rights organisation focused on the long-term future of the MENA region, and co-author of The Vicious Triangle: Terrorists, Tyrants and the West (Hurst, 2021).
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