Libya has struggled to remain unified since the Arab uprising in 2011 and the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi eight months later. 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, the capital, and in eastern Tobruk. Each government had its own armed factions.

Militias were further empowered by the 2014 split. By July, an estimated 1,600 armed groups were operating in Libya—1,300 more than in 2011. Some had links to political parties. Others were purely tribal or regionally based. All fought for power and influence.

Confrontations among Islamist and secular militias escalated nationwide for the rest of 2014. 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 Qaddafi’s military chief of staff but later turned on his boss; he spent nearly two decades in exile in the United States. He returned to Libya in 2011 and launched Operation Dignity from his base in Benghazi in May 2014 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 most active in eastern Derna, a longstanding jihadist breeding ground. It soon established other wilayats, or “provinces,” in the southern Fezzan region and Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown on the Mediterranean coast.

As the Islamic State expanded, the United Nations attempted to broker peace among Libya’s other warring factions. A key turning point, in December 2015, was the Libyan Political Agreement, a U.N.-brokered deal to integrate the eastern and western factions in a new Government of National Accord (GNA). The rival governments in Tripoli and Tobruk initially resisted power-sharing.

In early 2016, the new GNA set up shop in the Libyan capital. The Islamist regime in Tripoli soon ceded power to it, but the eastern House of Representatives based in Tobruk refused to accept the U.N.-backed government. The rivalry between the eastern and western sectors intensified.

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” (al-Bunyan al-Marsoos) to expel the Islamic State from Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown. In the east, General Haftar expanded his campaign against Islamists to Derna.

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. In 2017, little progress was made in reconciling the GNA and Haftar. Both sides agreed to a conditional ceasefire in July and an election schedule for the spring of 2018, but reconciliation talks in October ended in failure. The political situation deteriorated in December when Haftar declared that the political agreement from 2015 was void and the GNA was obsolete.

By late 2018, prospects for unification seemed somewhat less remote. In November, Libyan and international leaders met in Italy to end the political gridlock. All parties, including Haftar, expressed support for a U.N. plan that included an early 2019 conference to plan elections. 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 Qaddafi’s government’s fall in 2011. 

This timeline was assembled with the help of graphic research by Lindsay Jodoin and editorial research by Mattisan Rowan and Garrett Nada.

Related Publications

In Libya, Peace is Possible if Foreign Interference Ends

In Libya, Peace is Possible if Foreign Interference Ends

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

By: Adam Gallagher

If foreign powers ceased their involvement in Libya, the country’s protracted civil war could come quickly to an end, said Mohamed Syala, the foreign minister of the Government of National (GNA), in an interview with the U.S. Institute of Peace. The role of outside powers in Libya’s conflict has garnered renewed international attention in recent weeks as Russia has ramped up its support for Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s forces.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention; Global Policy

Libyan City, Primed for War, Answers Mother’s Plea with Peace Pact

Libyan City, Primed for War, Answers Mother’s Plea with Peace Pact

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

By: Nate Wilson; Abigail Corey

When Eaz Aldin Jaray was shot dead in September in the southern Libya city of Ubari, what initially followed was typical—unfortunately—of conflicts in the lawless region in the post-Qaddafi era. The trouble had begun after Jaray, a young member of the Tebu tribe, was accused of joining tribal confederates in taking weapons from a member of the Tuareg tribe. His killing, in turn, prompted Tebu youth to kidnap a Tuareg elder, which was followed by a reprisal snatch of two elders from the Tebu. As tensions mounted in the city, which had endured a tribal war five years ago, both the Tuareg and Tebu began stockpiling weapons and scouting strategic positions for a battle.

Type: Blog

Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue

Understanding Libya’s South Eight Years After Qaddafi

Understanding Libya’s South Eight Years After Qaddafi

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

By: Nate Wilson; Inga Kristina Trauthig

Sunday marked eight years since longtime Libyan dictator Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi was killed. In the post-2011 aftermath, another military man, Khalifa Haftar, has taken control over Libya’s east and much of its vast southern region, Fezzan. The battle for the capital, Tripoli, between Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), based in the east, and the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), based in the west in Tripoli, has dominated international attention on Libya. But the stability of the south is all too often overlooked. The region is critical to U.S. interests and any effective policy must not only focus on achieving reconciliation between the east and west, but on building stability in Fezzan.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

View All Publications