Who Drove the Libyan Uprising?

By Alex Serafimov
Interstate - Journal of International Affairs
2012, Vol. 2011/2012 No. 2 | pg. 1/2 |

During the armed conflict to topple Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, a common question for observers was “who are the Libyan opposition?” Indeed, for one scholar this was the ‘billion dollar question’,1 and, in the United States, it was a common concern.2 Conspicuously absent from most media discourse, and rarely discussed in narratives of the conflict, is who the armed militants and Libya’s new leadership are. Technocratic, neoliberal, exile and Islamist elements mingle under the moniker of “anti-Gaddafi forces” and the National Transitional Council (NTC), which is the acting government of Libya until elections are held in 2012. With this in mind, it is impossible to speak of these groups as one cohesive entity, with militant groups jostling for position, often violently, disagreements flourishing in the heights of the NTC leadership and overlapping and contested authorities. Moreover, with some militant groups engaging in torture and other atrocities,3 and with a complex and important role for Western powers in the conflict, this study becomes even more imperative.

Therefore, to investigate who is ruling Libya, this study will review the groups who participated in the initial February 2011 protests whose crackdown by the Gaddafi regime prompted the start of the violent conflict. It will then examine the various groups that make up the militancy in Libya, looking at its main components. Next, it will analyse the interim NTC regime and its most prominent members tracing it through two distinct periods. Finally, this study will examine the role of Libyan exiles in the conflict, pointing to avenues for further study. Examining demography, class, ideology, legitimacy, the role of Islam and the West, we see that what began as small scale protests mainly in the eastern region of Libya quickly turned violent. We see that the leadership of Libya, essentially self-appointed, is taking the country in a direction towards more close partnership with the West and liberalised economic policy, while Libyan exile groups and Western aid have played a crucial role in the conflict. Furthermore, investigating these groups is crucial in understanding where the new Libya is heading.


On February 15th, 2011, protests calling for the end of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime began in Libya’s second city, Benghazi, in the east of the country, after the arrest of human rights lawyer Fathi Terbil.4 Coming within days of the largely non-violent toppling of Tunisia and Egypt’s dictators, it seemed that Libya was joining the fold of the Arab Spring movement.5 The numbers of protesters were small, with various media outlets reporting at the time that ‘hundreds’ attended rallies in cities around the country.6 Protests in the city of Bayda in the east, for example, began with 300 and numbers rose to thousands as a response to mounting government repression.7 Grievances, too, were similar to those that characterised the movements in Tunisia and Egypt. These were a combination of anger at pervasive government repression, corruption, widespread dissatisfaction with growing economic inequality and the relative lack of economic development. Many in Libya think that given its small population and large oil reserves, Libya’s quality of life should be comparable to the Gulf States. Combined with this was the perception that Libya’s ‘impressive’ social welfare programmes of the 1970s had been underperforming, with low wages, unemployment and housing shortages.8 Grievances unique to Libya included dissatisfaction with the personality cult of the “Brother Leader” Gaddafi and his ‘idiosyncratic’ ideology.9

Again, as in Tunisia and Egypt, most protesters in Libya were from the working and middle classes, and it being a country with a very young population,10 there was a ‘strong youth component’,11 mainly males. Ideologically, these individuals were united in their common desire to oust Gaddafi and end his regime.12 Protests began in the east before spreading, likely because of Benghazi’s history of tense relations with the central government in Tripoli. One example of activism in Benghazi was in 2006 when protests against the Danish cartoon portrayals of the Prophet Mohammed turned into anti-Gaddafi protests.13 In addition, the east of Libya in general feels, although this perception may not necessarily be accurate, that it has been left without public investment.14 The east is also well known for its Islamism (the role of which will be discussed later) and conservative social outlook,15 which may explain its ambivalence to Gaddafi’s ostensibly radical ideology.

A crucial difference between the events in Tunisia and Egypt, on one hand, and Libya, on the other, has been the speed and consistency with which the movement turned to violence, only four days after protests began.16 A 2008 US embassy cable from Tripoli released by Wikileaks offers a fascinating insight into the reasons for this. It claims that the ‘reportedly deliberate’ policy of keeping the east of Libya poor had helped to give many young men in the region the impression that they ‘have nothing to lose by participating in extremist violence’.17 Furthermore, the International Crisis Group (ICG) argues that the reason behind the conflict taking on the ‘logic of civil war’ was the nexus between the state and Gaddafi. The state’s inability to “exist” without him gave the conflict the character of a ‘violent life-or-death struggle’.18 So, who were these individuals and groups that took up arms against the Gaddafi regime?


The first point that becomes apparent is the sheer number of armed groups existing in Libya. Various sources point to there being between 100 to 300 militant groups, with around 150,000 armed Libyans.19 Many militants are ‘autonomous, self-armed and self-trained’, especially in the west of the country where defections from the armed forces were riskier.20 Demographically, the militants share most characteristics with the original protesters, who, it is probably safe to say, made up their ranks early in the conflict. Coming from the working and middle classes, the ICG described the militants as ‘accountants, lawyers, students and labourers’.21 Again, it appears that most militants were young and male, although women were involved in roles such as smuggling weapons and ammunition during the conflict.22

Although some militants have a military background, the majority are civilians who gained experience through engagement.23 As one commentator in the Financial Times colourfully put it, most were ‘young volunteers in looted uniforms who careered into battle in pick-up trucks with virtually no training’.24 Organisationally, most militant groups are decentralised and do not see themselves as working for a central authority such as the NTC.25 One militant unit leader explained that ‘[t]here’s no commander above us except God. We choose when we go and fight’ or, according to a Misratan commander, decisions are reached by discussion and consensus amongst members.26 This can be explained by the fact that most groups were organised on an ad-hoc ‘street by street’ basis.27 Indeed, what binds militants are individual solidarities based around their neighbourhoods, towns or cities.28 Ideologically, some militants do share political and religious affiliations,29 but the overriding drive seemed to be the common goal of ousting Gaddafi and the defence of their localities.

Looking at several of the main militant and army groupings engaged in the conflict, the first is the National Liberation Army, also known as the Free Libya Army, which is under the authority of the NTC. Largely operating in the east, this group of eight thousand30 was composed of ‘small numbers’ of army defectors and much larger contingents of civilian volunteers during the conflict. It was armed from looted weapons depots and was also supplied with arms by the French, Egyptian and Qatari armed forces.31 Although described as a “national” army, it was in fact a largely eastern operation and this caused resentment amongst civilian militants whom it tried, unsuccessfully, to control.32

Other groups are, as already noted, based around cities. The Tripoli Military Council, for example, led by Abdul Hakim Belhaj ‘oversees’ eleven brigades around the Tripoli area.33 Described as an ‘Islamist militia’ by French officials, its mandate and legitimacy is questioned within Libya, especially due to accusations of foreign (Qatari) funding.34 Another is the Western Military Council established in the western mountains of Libya, which coordinates militants in the area and is mostly based around the city of Zintan. Its leadership is dominated by defectors from the “old” National Army and several of the groups under its umbrella have acquired a reputation for ‘unruly behaviour, violence and theft’.35 A third group is the Misratan Military Council that ‘grew out of small cells formed by Misratan youth to resist the regime forces’.36 It is a largely decentralised force which was formed around ‘loose coalitions’, and lacked training or any former military contingents.37 A final group is the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change (LIMC) (formerly the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG)) founded by the aforementioned Abdel Hakim Belhaj. This group emerged in the 1970s and ‘80s in Libya and was involved in fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. On top of this, some of its members were, and still are, high profile al-Qaeda figures.38 Under its new aegis and name, the LIMC and its members were placed under NTC command.39

Belhaj, as one of the key militant figures, has been described as ‘arguably the most powerful military man’ in Tripoli,40 and ‘is seen as the leader of the country’s Islamist camp’.41 Relatively unknown early on in the conflict, he made his name by participating in the storming of Tripoli and the taking of Gaddafi’s compound.42 Before that, he has had alleged links to prominent Islamist leaders such as Taliban chief Mullah Omar through the LIFG.43 He was captured by the CIA whilst on the run in Thailand and returned to Gaddafi’s Libya to face torture in its infamous Abu Salim prison.44 Now, however, Belhaj claims to have renounced terrorism and violence against civilians.45 He also argues that Islamic groups in Libya ‘will not allow’ themselves to be excluded from the post-conflict Libya.46 More generally, the ICG shows that Islamist groups ‘feel confident that they represent the majority of public opinion’47 with Ali Sallabi, a prominent cleric close to Belhaj, claiming that ‘Islam was the fuel of this revolution, it motivated people. Many, if not most of the frontline fighters, are actually Islamists by background. Just as they have been a fundamental part of the revolution, they will play a fundamental role in the building of the new Libya.’48 According to Indiana University Maurer School of Law Professor, David Williams, Islamist parties are ‘by far’ the best organised and are confident of major gains when elections take place in Libya.49 Indeed, the prominent role of Islamists is not surprising, as Gaddafi’s regime infamously repressed Islamic groups.50

There is a perception in Libya that while militant fighters should be shown, in the words of Abdurrahim al-Keib, the NTC’s current Prime Minister, ‘the gratitude and respect they deserve’, the prevalence of arms is widely perceived as harmful.51 At a December 2011 protest in Libya, some declared that now that the armed conflict is over, the armed men should ‘either go home, join the army or lay down their guns’, with the latter two being official state policy.52 This, alongside rivalries and deadly clashes between militant groups,53 is creating serious problems. The ICG, for example, has judged the measured and careful ‘disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration’ of militant groups as the key issue of the post-Gaddafi Libya.54

Lastly, the role of foreign military forces in the armed conflict is also worth examining. In examples of the role of foreign military aid, CNN reported how British, French, Jordanian and Qatari Special Forces gave aid to the militants, which proved ‘critical’ in conducting operations. This support came in the form of improving militant tactics, providing targeting information for NATO warplanes conducting airstrikes, communications, and arms (provided by the Qatari and French armed forces).55 In some cases, foreign forces accompanied militants from around Libya all the way to Tripoli. In one incident, The Week reported how ‘Qatari special forces, trained by Britain, could be seen clearly directing the final assault on the [Gaddafi] compound’.56 In another, one commentator described how British Special Forces ‘played a key role in coordinating the fall of Tripoli’,57 as did France and Qatar by funnelling weapons and supplies, and NATO generally, as it escalated a bombing campaign over the city.58 Lastly, NATO was crucial in the capture of Gaddafi himself when his attempt to flee the city of Sirte in a convoy was interdicted by air strikes from a US Predator drone and a French warplane. The strikes forced Gaddafi to flee on foot, making it possible that he was captured and seemingly executed by militants.59 The crucial role of foreign forces at the three climactic events of the conflict, the storming of Gaddafi’s infamous compound, the Battle of Tripoli and the capture and murder of Gaddafi, brings up serious questions as to the militancy’s capabilities, begging the question of whether these eventual “successes” would ever have been possible without foreign involvement.

National Transitional Council

The NTC has been described as the “main body” to have emerged during the conflict, although it is a troubled one. An unelected council, the NTC convened and held its first meeting on March 5th, 2011, in the city of Benghazi, which would become its stronghold. On May 5th, 2011, it created its executive board.60 To examine the NTC, we can speak of two periods. The first period from March to November 2011 (with a cabinet reshuffle in October) covered its operation during the conflict, and the second period from November 22nd, 2011, to the present, where the NTC functions - since moving operations to Tripoli - as the interim government of Libya.61

In the first period, one commentator described the council as ‘largely drawn from upper middle-class professionals, lawyers, doctors, professors, and some wealthy businessmen’; others include Gaddafi regime defectors and prominent Libyan families.62 One analyst described them as ‘scions of the aristocratic and bourgeois families who had dominated Libya during the monarchy (1951-69)’, exiled ‘members of the non-aristocratic Libyan intelligentsia and business community’ and ‘representatives of the educated elite, such as lawyers and university professors’.63 The ICG described them as ‘technocrats’.64 They were self-appointed, ostensibly on the basis of ‘experience’.65 However, in the second period, unlike the first cabinet, the interim government of the NTC seems to have put ‘regional affiliation ahead of experience or a track record’,66 aiming instead to represent all the localities of Libya. However, the new cabinet has not placed Islamists in any “strategic” positions in the government, in what some have called a move to ‘please western backers’67 but has distanced Islamic figures and support.

The NTC’s main ideological and political statements have been made through several documents. On March 29th, 2011, the NTC released a document called Vision of a Democratic Libya which took a broadly liberal view of the post-Gaddafi Libya. It envisages a ‘modern, free and united state’ based on the ‘religious beliefs in peace, truth, justice and equality’.68 It professes the value of ‘social justice’ and using the economy to ‘eradicate poverty and unemployment’. It talks about partnering a ‘strong and productive public sector’ with a ‘free private sector’.69 However, the NTC’s more recent and comprehensive Constitutional Declaration, the working document of the interim period, released on August 3rd, 2011, appears more moderate. It removes all references to ‘social justice’, although it talks about ‘guarantee[ing] the fair distribution of national wealth among citizens’ while making private property inviolable.70 In this document, the NTC names itself as the ‘supreme power in the State of Libya’ holding ‘supreme sovereignty’ through sole legislative powers and controlling the ‘general policy of the State’. It claims its legitimacy derives from the ‘Revolution of February 17th’.71 However, this is challenged by militant groups who claim that they have revolutionary legitimacy, which can only be derived from a combat role in the conflict.72 The legitimacy and authority of the NTC is largely a “moral” one; not necessarily arising from its representativeness or participation in the conflict. It has authority mainly in the sense that it ‘acted early, spoke with authority and swiftly achieved broad international recognition’.73

A final document, the NTC’s Electoral Law has drawn criticism. These laws, under which a 200 member constituent assembly (General National Congress) is to be elected in June 2012, contain several controversial points. The law, which was adopted on January 28th, 2012, stipulates that Libyans with ties to Gaddafi or the old regime, or academics who wrote about Gaddafi’s Green Book, which elucidated his ideology,74 will be banned from running for office.75 Linked to this, reports have arisen showing the desire of the NTC to recall and purge its foreign embassies of their Gaddafi era officials.76 This is despite the fact that, as Jeff Bridoux, postdoctoral fellow at Aberystwyth University has claimed, an ‘Iraqilike purge’ of Gaddafi officials would be disastrous for Libya due to the loss of expertise and the alienation of supporters of the old regime.77 Furthermore, in another echo of wide-ranging Western involvement, discussion about the creation of a constitution and electoral procedure was carried out with a ‘U.K.-based group’ that included the previously mentioned Professor David Williams.78 As Professor Williams explained, ‘[d]ifferent electoral laws will have radically different political consequences’, even if on the ‘face of things’ this is not evident.79 This stresses the importance of these laws and demonstrates the significance of Western involvement at this level. Lastly, with supreme irony, this electoral law, drafted under a body led by prominent members of the Gaddafi regime, prohibits anyone connected to that regime to run for a government position. Furthermore, it appears that the NTC has relaxed previous promises to ban its own members from running for office80 and some of its prominent former members have pledged to contest elections.81 This possibly heralds a long-term role for the NTC and its members.

The most prominent individual in the NTC is Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who, as its chairman, is currently serving as the de facto President of Libya. Having served as Minister of Justice under the Gaddafi regime, he resigned on February 21st, 2011, in protest over the use of violence against demonstrators.82 Before that, he studied both secular and Sharia law, and was a lawyer and judge notable for what some have called conservative but fair rulings, sometimes against the regime.83 He belonged to the ‘reformist current’ in the old regime under Gaddafi’s most prominent son, Saif al-Islam,84 which sought political and economic liberalisation in Libya. Abdul Jalil has portrayed himself as an Islamic moderate85 but has sought to appease Islamists in Libya. In what the ICG called ‘rhetorical concessions to Islamism’, Abdul Jalil claimed that Sharia, Islamic jurisprudence, would be the basis of legislation in the post-Gaddafi Libya and that interest on bank loans should be removed, and more importantly, laws banning polygamy should be repealed.86 Although the NTC’s Electoral Law guarantees seats for women in the constituent assembly87 one commentator described this as ‘a sizable step backward for women’ in a country where polygamy was ‘limited and rare for decades’ and has embarrassed the NTC’s foreign supporters.88 The interim NTC regime is itself overwhelmingly male, with only two women, Minister of Health, Dr. Fatimah al-Hamrush and Minister of Social Affairs, Mabrukah Sharif Jibril, holding office out of 28 government positions.89

A 2010 US embassy cable from Tripoli released by Wikileaks offers further insight into Abdul Jalil’s ideology and goals.90 The cable shows how Abdul Jalil sought ‘international assistance in developing [Libya’s] private sector and strengthening its commercial legal environment’.91 Abdul Jalil also praised trips to the US by Libyan judicial officials, ostensibly to learn about the US system of government. An earlier cable noted that such Libya-US “cooperation” ‘offers the opportunity to influence Libya’s reform efforts at local, grassroots levels’.92 The 2010 cable reports that Abdul Jalil went on to claim that ‘less talk and more action is best’ in moving the relationship with the US forward.93 Seemingly, he put this maxim into practice during the conflict. Furthermore, the cable noted, based on a Human Rights Watch report, that Abdul Jalil’s ‘drive to change the system is driven more by his conservative point of view rather than a reformist agenda’.94 Finally, the cable showed how the US embassy committed itself to providing Abdul Jalil with ‘U.S. laws and explanations showing how [the U.S.] handled the issues of free association and free speech balanced against the security needs of the nation’.95 When taken together, this shows that Abdul Jalil is interested in free market reform and greater ties with the US, having been in contact with US officials for several years before the conflict. His fascination with the US system of government and laws, provided by the US embassy, could signal his desire to emulate the US.

The current Prime Minister of Libya is Abdurrahim al- Keib. He replaced Mahmoud Jibril in the post (a member of the same reformist current in the old regime as Abdul Jalil) as Jibril had promised to step down when the country was declared “liberated”.96 Al-Keib has been described as an ‘academic and business man who has spent much of his life outside Libya’ and is not well known in the country.97 He earned a doctorate in electrical engineering from North Carolina State University and was a professor in the US,98 holding a teaching post at Alabama University for twenty years.99 Although a technocrat like many in the interim government, al-Keib never worked under the Gaddafi regime but instead funded the opposition and the NTC during the conflict.100 He was elected as Prime Minister by a narrow margin within the NTC, with 26 out of 51 votes.101 Coming from one of the most prominent ‘nationalist’ families in Libya,102 some argue that he was chosen because he is originally from Tripoli and will balance the Benghazi-dominated NTC, thus demonstrating its inclusiveness.103 Politically, al-Keib has spoken favourably about the “Turkish model”104 of a moderate Islam, close and friendly relations with the West and a liberalised economy.

Criticism from previous NTC officials provides an interesting insight into the makeup and motivations of the NTC. Ali Tarhouni, who served as Oil and Finance Minister in the NTC and led a raid to rob Benghazi’s central bank to raise funds for the body,105 refused to join the interim government and made scathing criticisms of the NTC. Tarhouni, who left his post as an economics professor at the University of Washington to return to Libya, described the NTC as an unrepresentative ‘elite’.106 Continuing, he made allegations that the NTC was ‘supported from the outside by money, arms and PR’ and added that ‘[i]t is about time that we hear the true voices of the masses’.107 Although polemical, these criticisms expose a class-based break between the elite NTC and the primarily working and middle class Libyans over whom it claims authority.

In a possible example of these issues, the NTC faced protests in January 2012 due to ‘increasing frustration with the pace and direction of reforms in the country’.108 This culminated in the storming by hundreds of protesters of the NTC’s headquarters in its stronghold of Benghazi on January 21st, 2012. Protesters were angry at the draft of the Electoral Law discussed above, which they thought was drafted without public consultation and did not live up to ‘democratic ideals’. Protesters demanded more transparency on the part of the NTC leadership and are frustrated with the slow pace of reform.109 Above all, they called for the resignation of the NTC.110 These protests caused the resignation of Abdul Hafiz Ghoga, second-in-command of the NTC,111 after he was accused of opportunism in switching allegiances from Gaddafi belatedly.112

The importance of this event in the region where NTC influence is greatest, and where the conflict began, cannot be understated. Indeed, these protests have added to previous criticism of the NTC. As one Zintani brigade commander had previously proclaimed, ‘[t]he NTC performed well in terms of building international recognition for us and in terms of acquiring funds. But it was never a government for us here in Libya’.113 Indeed, this seems to be a feeling shared by many others. Several civilian militias began to ‘openly criticise’ the NTC for its ‘unrepresentativeness’, the absence of its military forces from much of the fighting114 and the prevalence of old regime officials and defectors in its ranks.115 Indeed, because the NTC focused on gaining international support, it finds it difficult to lay claim to ‘fully’ leading the conflict, and it was never able to establish a ‘physical presence’ in the country outside of its eastern stronghold.116

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