Against the catalyst of successful revolutions in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia, the initial Libyan demonstrations of the Arab Spring occurred on February 15th 2011. These peaceful protests rapidly escalated into a country-wide uprising against Libya’s long-time ruler, Muammar Qaddafi. After eight months of fighting, the rebels overthrew his despotic regime with the help of a NATO military intervention and installed a fledgling democratic government. Yet the causes of this civil war are neither as clear cut or as sudden as they appear. To understand this conflict, one must delve into Libya’s geography, history and politics.


Libya is not, and has never been, a nation state. Rather it is comprised of Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan, stitched together by arbitrary borders drawn by colonial powers. Spread over these three regions are four ethnic groups and dozens of disparate tribes. Half of the population is less than 25 years of age and the vast majority live on the coast, the only fertile area, centered on the largest  cities of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica: the capital of Tripoli (the most populous city, home to a quarter of the populace) and Benghazi, respectively. However, eighty percent of Libya’s oil, the main economic engine, is located in Cyrenaica, while Fezzan has plentiful iron mines. These factors create an internal tension as the regions, ethnic groups and tribes use their various attributes to vie for importance. In addition Libya’s geography means only a small number of strategic locations are necessary for the possession of power in the country; a fact exploited by many an occupying empire.

Libya ethnicity mapLibya population map

Libya was first colonised by the Greeks, who divided the territory, then by the Romans, who introduced a common patriotic identity. Next came the rule of the Arab Islamic and Ottoman Empires, both of which introduced Arabs and Islam into Libya, differentiating the country from the rest of Africa on an ethnic level and creating the racial base for the modern populace. When the Italians established dominion over Libya in 1911, their mass emigration resulted in a 20 percent Italian population. Occupation by successive oppressive foreign powers hardened the average Libyan to despotic, uncaring rulers and to the unequal distribution of wealth. However with independence in 1951 conditions were not much better in King Idris’s absolute monarchy. The people did not obtain any power and did not reap the benefits of the oil discovered in Libya in 1959, tightly controlled as it was by the government. In fact the rich continued getting richer while the poor continued getting poorer, setting the stage for Muammar Qaddafi’s power grab. With his military coup and use of Nasserism, Qaddafi vastly improved the lot of Libyans, with education, healthcare and the fifth highest GDP per capita in Africa. Yet he never established democracy, a failure which would lead to his death in a revolutionary Libya some fifty years later.

King IdrisMuammar Gaddafi

The last ingredient of the revolution, not to be underestimated, is very modern: the conduit of social networks. These both started and later facilitated the militarised rebel uprising by allowing the people to communicate with one another, to coordinate their actions, to receive news from the outside world and to make their plight known outside of Libya.

In conclusion, Libya’s 2011 revolution was the product of geographic, historic, political and social media factors. It was the result of tribes and provinces squabbling for position, of an oppressed country finally squirming free from its despotic rulers, and of a people asserting itself through a desire for democratic reform. In the end, the revolution, one of many during the Arab Spring, was the culmination of many latent catalysts. A fractious Libya, united against a common enemy, shook off its long history of totalitarian regimes, and created it's own government. Only the future will tell whether the new Libya's government will look kindly on the West or rather side with more radical Islam.

Libya's Triumph