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date: 28 February 2021

Libya: Modern Political Historylocked

  • Jacob MundyJacob MundyDepartment of Peace & Conflict Studies, Colgate University

Summary

The modern Libyan state began to take shape within the Ottoman Empire from the mid-16th century onward. Libya’s path to independent statehood was violently interrupted in 1911 with the onset of an Italian conquest. Rome’s efforts to annex Libya through settler colonialism and ethnic cleansing were in turn disrupted by World War II. The United Nations (UN) helped to guide Libya to independence under the Sanusi monarchy in 1951, albeit in close collaboration with the United Kingdom and the United States. The Sanusi monarchy, founded in the eastern region of Cyrenaica in the late 19th century, faced substantial difficulties in its efforts to transform an incredibly vast, thinly populated, socially diverse, and seemingly resource-poor country into a modern nation state. Though the extraction and exportation of oil from the 1960s onward help to alleviate some of the financial constraints on the government, the increasing centralization of power within the monarchy eventually led to a military coup in 1969. Libya’s new regime, under the leadership of Mu‘ammar Al-Gaddafi, would eventually pursue a radical program involving centralized economic planning funded through oil sales, a baroque system of popular consultation, a terrifying array of “revolutionary” security institutions, military aggression in Chad, and confrontations with North Atlantic powers directly and indirectly. Though the Gaddafi regime was able to survive an array of domestic and international challenges for over four decades, a mass armed uprising in 2011, which precipitated a merciless civil war and foreign military intervention, led to its downfall. Subsequent international assistance and successive transitional authorities, however, were unable to address the spiral of insecurity that consumed Libya from 2012 onwards. A second civil war erupted in 2014, one fed not only by competing domestic visions for the future of Libya, but also by the competing ambitions of other states in the region.

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