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Libyan Civil War Causes Essay

Relations between the United States (US) and Libya have remained turbulent ever since the 19th century. When Libya was awarded independence by the United Nations (UN) in 1951, the US had already developed a significant economic and military presence on its soil. This presence was deepened when oil was discovered in large commercial reserves in Libya in 1963. As a result, US oil companies gained great concessions, and a further enhanced US military presence was established.

While ties initially deepened and the Libyan government remained loyal to the US policy in the region, Libya’s revolutionary coup in 1969 abolished the pro-US monarchy, leading to a restructuring of relations (Emeesh 2008, 380). Overcoming the uncertainties of regime change, US-Libyan relations continued to witness positive improvements in political and economic spheres. This was in despite of evidence that the coup leaders desired the end of the US military presence (Attir 2014, 163).

As a consequence of this desire, Libya’s authoritarian ruler, Muammar Gaddafi, shifted policies, as he sought to undermine US interests. Aided by huge oil wealth, Gaddafi sponsored multiple terrorist groups from 1979, causing the U.S to retaliate by cutting diplomatic relations and impose sanctions for two decades. When the Gaddafi regime abandoned this policy in 2003, Libya embarked on domestic reform, restoring relations with the US. However, as popular protests swept the country in early 2011, the US ended its rapprochement with Gaddafi, assisting the rebels in the destruction of his regime (Zoubir, 46-84).

Since 2011, the situation in Libya has been that of a violent struggle. While this struggle is costing Libya more than it could have imagined, the US and its allies in contrast appear willing to witness the Libyan tragedy horribly unfold.

This article seeks to engage with the contemporary and historical dynamics that explain US policy towards Libya. The article springs from a hypothesis that the US military intervention in 2011 was based upon a pretext of invoking the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle without an accompanying clear-cut policy or plan for post-revolt Libya. The US intervention was a realist move that unleashed forces and dynamics that have resulted in an ongoing political and military struggle and the destabilization of the state. This struggle has so far cost Libya more than could be imagined, while the US and its allies appear content with observing a Libyan tragedy horribly unfold.

The 2011 Intervention in Libya: Cause and Effect

Inspired by the wider Arab Spring protests of 2011, the Libyan people revolted against a dictatorial regime which reacted with violence and oppression. The US and its allies saw in the regime’s reaction a danger that must be countered in order to protect civilians.  Later that year, the US and its NATO allies intervened in Libya, annihilating Gaddafi’s forces and toppling his regime. The US justified the intervention through the principle of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P). Trying to achieve two goals simultaneously, the US sought to remove Gaddafi, while appearing supportive of the Libyan people and their long yearning for democracy (Sawani).

The intervention was successful in militarizing an otherwise peaceful, popular uprising and toppling the Gaddafi regime. However, the hope for freedom and stability today are a mirage. Today, Libya descends into a civil war that not only threatens its social and national cohesion, but has equally alarming implications for regional security. What is striking however, is that the US has refrained from pro-active engagement in post-revolt Libya. It has resorted to ‘leading from behind’.

The Western military intervention unleashed forces and dynamics that have directly contributed to the ongoing political and military destabilization of the state. This is taking place while nascent political and representative state institutions are still being formed. Meanwhile, an array of political, tribal, regional and ideological forces are doing all they can to gain the upper hand in a struggle in which the very idea of the revolt and the reasons behind its ignition are now secondary. Libya has become a failed state par excellence. The most alarming aspect of this case, however, is the reluctance of the US and other western states to pay appropriate attention to the ills that have beleaguered this country since the fall of the Gaddafi regime. Such neglect of the country further discredits the otherwise noble objectives that had justified the NATO military intervention.

The US and NATO’s new disengagement is a testimony of how foreign intervention can undermine a truly genuine peoples’ uprising. The western intervention was driven by the desire to remove Gaddafi without paying adequate attention to the prospect of arming Libya’s tribes and radical Islamists, and how that would lead to an armed struggle. The US in particular adopted an approach of disengagement to post-Gaddafi Libya, despite its downward move towards greater civil war and gross human rights violations. The pursuit of this disengagement only enhances the feeling that the US’ real concern was to remove the Gaddafi regime without caring for the fate of the Libyan people afterwards (Blanchard).

This also provokes the question of as to how the US would react if the situation in Libya further deteriorates. Libya appears essentially unimportant to the US, largely because Libya is a source of petroleum and natural gas to Europe rather than the United States. Such a policy approach can only be seen as reflecting calculated caution and a wariness or unwillingness to bear responsibility for the occurrences after the intervention.

The Strategic Importance of Libya

In addition to its strategic location, Libya remains an important oil producer and exporter, providing 2% of world production and still retaining proven reserves of approximately 50 billion barrels. Other important aspects of Libya’s oil include its lightness, lower cost of refining, proximity to Europe, and the apparent security of its petroleum distribution and transport systems. Libya also has a great potential for alternative sources of energy and could provide these sources of energy for Europe and the region. Besides its substantial proven oil reserves, Libya also has the potential for the discovery and exploitation of shale oil and gas, with its reserves ranking fifth in the world (EIA). Moreover, geothermal, solar, and wind sources of energy are also possible within its vast territory. This makes Libya strategically important in the global competition for energy resources. Europe’s reliance on Libya’s oil and gas is likely to increase given its geographical proximity and the apparent security of its petroleum distribution and transport systems. Furthermore, Libya’s oil is known for its lightness and its lower cost of refining (Pack).

Oil and Gaddafi: The Politics of Contradiction

Under the Gaddafi regime, Libya’s oil industry was nationalised and production was cut in order to conserve its reserves. The huge financial fortune generated by oil exports financed Gaddafi’s desires and designs, as he embarked on adventures that brought him into direct contact with the great powers of the world. Gaddafi particularly became involved in state-sponsored terrorism that brought Libya into a direct confrontation with the US and its interests. Gaddafi incited violence against the US as early as December 1979, when the US embassy in Tripoli was attacked and set on fire (Attir, 147-148).

The US reacted by unilaterally cutting diplomatic relations with Libya in 1981. The last two decades of the twentieth century saw the US impose severe economic sanctions on Libya; however these harsh measures only resulted in Gaddafi intensifying his anti-US actions.  Gaddafi continued with targeting U.S interests and personnel; such as his responsibility for deadly acts against US nationals at the La Belle discotheque in Berlin in 1986. Gaddafi became US public enemy number one and the target of US air raids on Tripoli during April 1986, signalling a new phase of direct animosity (Hurst).

Petrodollars pouring into Gaddafi’s purse gave him the false perception that he was capable of acting as he wished with impunity. Therefore, Libya’s foreign policy was persistently adventurous, as Gaddafi sponsored world terror groups to fulfill his self image and role as a world rebel. An increase in terrorist activities was evident throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Such escalation of Gaddafi’s anti-US activities led the US to push for further international sanctions against his regime. Moreover, the US retaliated by bombarding Gaddafi’s house in April 1986 and it was actively involved in attempting to destabilize his regime by aiding domestic opposition. These efforts were intensified after Gaddafi was accused in 1991 of a terrorist attack on an American civilian airliner over the town of Lockerbie (Tobey).

It appears that accusing Libya served many purposes, including isolating the Gaddafi regime and eventually removing him from power. It also appears that the Gaddafi regime had to accept responsibility for the actions of its two citizens implicated in the Lockerbie affair at the same time it was embarking on a political strategy to restructure its priorities in a changing global environment. Therefore, the Gaddafi regime abandoned its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) activities and in 2003 engaged in direct negotiations with the U.S and the UK (Tobey). Libya sought to liberate itself from the severe effects of international sanctions and their impact on the domestic environment. However, the US change of policy was not completely divorced from the re-evaluation of its own priorities as far as Libya was concerned. The Bush administration in 2001 decided that energy security dictated a reevaluation of its relationship with Libya. With backing from oil giants, the administration sought to lift sanctions so that US investments could recommence in Libya (Zoubir, 46-84).

Both sides, the US and Gaddafi, could claim great success for the new policy. Relations gradually moved from one success to another and the circle of common interests widened, particularly with regard to the war on terror, fighting Muslim extremism, and pursuing the global network of trafficking in nuclear materials. The gains that the US was able to realise from restoring relations with Gaddafi were considerable (Alterman, 2006). The US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Tripoli and she was entertained by Gaddafi. The visit provided a diplomatic seal of approval, while issues of human rights and democracy were clearly pushed to the background or swept under the carpet.

US Intervention in Libya: Neorealism

The Realist theory of international relations gives primacy to national interest. Given Libya’s role in contributing to the strategic objectives of the USA’s energy policy, the realist framework of analysis appears to fit the case. Realism helps us understand the reasons underlying US decisions since 2011 in Libya, explaining the shift from R2P to disengagement. President Obama’s step was “largely on the advice of liberal interventionists like Ambassador Rice, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and NSC aides Samantha Power and Michael McFaul” (Walt).

The US was initially unable to react to the radical developments of the 2011 Arab Spring revolts. What was more problematic, however, was the lack of a coherent Obama Doctrine for the Middle East. Given the scale and magnitude of the 2011 protests in Libya, the US seized the moment and called for an international coalition to effectively force Gaddafi out. Such change of position generates several key questions: Why did this shift happen? How had Gaddafi become, in the words of Secretary Hillary Clinton, “an evil and vile dictator” (Parsons).

A debate took place throughout different levels of US policy community during the discussion on Libya in 2011. The debate was heated from the inception of the revolt and reflected the complexity in the formulation of US foreign policy (Hendrickson, 2013, 178-189). Many voices called for a non-interventionist approach because they claimed that Libya did not represent a core US interest (Vandewalle; Kinzer; Zenko). Obama’s linking intervention to US national interests, human rights, and the responsibility to protect was seen as nonsense that could not change reality. ‘Not only does Obama’s decision to intervene militarily in Libya not serve any tangible American interests; it may directly serve the interests of the Islamist enemy.’ (Ibrahim). Yet another view accused the President of reluctance and hesitancy in response to a human tragedy in Libya with most of those who criticized Obama for choosing to “lead from behind’’ focusing on the negative strategic implications (Joyner).

Libya and the Obama Doctrine

The developments that ensued revealed that the US decision had less to do with the principles of defending freedom and liberty, than with realpolitik. This approach was certainly in line with the Obama Doctrine, that sought to appear to comply with international law and in accordance with the expectations of the world community. Obama framed his actions and policy in Libya so as to not to go to a war unilaterally but rather in concert with the rest of the world. Such an approach was vital in the US effort to eradicate the public image of post-911 US unilateralism.

The US intervention in Libya also reflected the US strategic vision as described in a 2010 national security document that awarded a high degree of importance to the pursuit of interests through diplomacy, especially by working though international organisations and institutions. Such an approach was a cornerstone in restoring world confidence in the US; particularly in the Arab World (The Wall Street Journal). The US needed to appear respectful of international legal norms, so this approach towards Libya was vital for claiming it was undertaking a moral and legally legitimate duty. Moreover, the Libyan case helped consolidate the perception that the U.S was supportive of the Arab peoples’ 2011 uprisings. Because of this approach, the US image in Arab public opinion improved considerably during 2011 and 2012. For example, after 2011, Libyans were reported to have become appreciative of Americans to a degree that was higher than their views of Canadians (Fisher).

However, the resources and the strategic location of Libya, with its long Mediterranean coast and a vast terrain that extends well into the Sahara clearly influenced the US calculations. The US sought early to influence Gaddafi’s African policy and win him for its strategy in Africa. This was particularly the case with AFRICOM about which Gaddafi was more than reluctant. Gaddafi attempted to derail the AFRICOM project and its goals, considering it an imperialist attempt to control Africa’s resources (Al Wasat News). The US intervention in Libya, as executed, was a pragmatic and realist choice rather than various moral principles. US realist logic in the formulation of foreign policy was behind the assessments undertaken regarding Libya in 2011 (Kazianis). After the Russians, Chinese and Arabs gave the go-ahead for the intervention in Libya, the US could proceed with little or no political cost.

The US military was responsible for most of the military operations in Libya, revealing the US was the only ‘real’ actor in the intervention (Wilson). In another speech made in March 2011, Obama outlined the elements of the military campaign that his nation’s forces were waging in Libya. They included destroying Gaddafi’s military forces heading towards Benghazi, annihilating Libya’s military capabilities in cities and towns west of Benghazi like Ajdabbiya, destroying Libya’s air defenses, destroying all tanks and other military equipment, and cutting support and logistical supply lines. Despite the significant US role in military operations and these vast tactical and strategic objectives, Obama still insisted the US involvement was limited (BBC).

A cursory view of Hillary Clinton’s official diary of meetings and visits reveals that the United States was intent upon destroying the Gaddafi regime as early as 2011, when Libya Contact Group was set up (Parsons). A review of the chronology of the events reveals that the aim was less about protecting civilians than ending Gaddafi’s regime. Therefore, facts were fabricated, falsified, or manipulated so that military action to support humanitarian objectives could become morally defensible (Shondob, 2013).

A study published in a 2013 issue of Security International shed important light on this issue. The writer drew lessons from the western intervention in Libya and highlighted a number of facts that counter the narrative of the western intervention. The most striking fact of this report was that the NATO intervention had not actually sought the protection of civilians but the destruction of the Gaddafi regime, even at the cost of increasing damage to Libyan civilians themselves. NATO campaign in Libya had actually prolonged the war six times longer than it otherwise would have been without the military intervention. The number of casualties and deaths are thought to have increased at least seven fold  (Kuperman).

The Prospects of a Failed State and Disintegration: Any New US Approach?

The deepening crisis in Libya opens up a necessary discussion and poses legitimate questions regarding the intervention in Libya and its consequences. Has the intervention achieved its objectives beyond getting rid of Gaddafi and the destruction of the Libyan state apparatus?  Has it paved any way for democracy in Libya when we see armed militias do all they can in order to block the democratic process?

It is immediately clear that Libyans’ aspirations for a post-Gaddafi Libya have not been attained. Libya is swiftly moving into new phase of a more substantial civil war, which has wider regional repercussions.

Rather than standing as a model for political transition, Libya has become a toxic mixture of inherited structural weaknesses, post-conflict challenges and the fallout of regime change, all made worse by a series of unwise political decisions. Stumbling through this new era, the country seems poised on the edge of lawlessness, violence, political atomization and even renewed authoritarianism. (Gaub, 101)

Analysts at the time of intervention argued that the situation in Libya would, under the best of circumstances, be that of a weak, fragile, or failed state (Kaplan). This was also anticipated by Richard Hass, when he affirmed that getting rid of Gaddafi and those around him would unleash a series of events that would bring to the fore personalities and leaders of varied tribal, regional orientations and desires, and the potential for radical Islamists gaining the upper hand. In both cases Hass expected that Libya’s new government would be unable to control large swaths of the territory, thus creating vacuums that would be seized by Al Qaeda, Islamic State or similar groups (Hass).

While their is an undeniable value in getting rid of Gaddafi, the negative consequences of the foreign intervention and the militarization of the uprising have not only spoiled a genuine peoples’ revolt, but have made Libya, in the words of the French minister, a “viper’s nest” for Islamist militants (Reuters). The country is in a civil war with two parliaments and two governments promising yet more divisions. Militias reject abandoning their weapons and thus denying the country the chance to build coherent institutions. Libya requires a strong national army and police but that will not be possible without dissolving militias. The US and its allies have not shown any desire or ability to change the situation (Katulis & Peter Juul). Western leaders have created a situation in Libya that is similar to Somalia, which is plagued by warring militias, warlords, and the frightening spread of arms (Michael).

The situation is that of a vicious circle: security rests upon dismantling militias who will not voluntarily forsake the advantages they have obtained or the gains they have accumulated. They will not lay down their arms unless they are certain that their rivals will not have the upper hand. Hence, any call to disarm will go unanswered. Armed militias are actually stockpiling weaponry with the direct help of regional state and non-state actors that will have far-reaching security implications: encouraging more armed groups, organized crime, and Al Qaeda and its affiliates (Security Council).

If any of these fundamental goals of US are to be attained, Libya must be properly placed within the parameters of the US strategy. There is an increasing need for a clear-cut policy that helps achieve these goals. Therefore, merely relying on and being content with rhetoric that claims to be spreading democracy and human rights while the country descends into further chaos is certainly a self-defeating prescription and Libya has proved it as such (Morrissey). The US and international cooperation in Libya on the whole has been more of a “let a thousand flowers bloom approach than a well-coordinated effort with a clear strategy and division of labour” (Chivvis et al.).

The conclusion that may be drawn is that the R2P was employed to justify an intervention that has caused and led to a continuous civilian losses as a result of the armed struggle it ignited. The militia elements the intervention empowered with arms and power have but transformed Libya into a safe haven for Jihadists and terror groups. Despite any moral pretext, the military intervention has actually made the promise of a democratic and peaceful regime replacing a nasty dictatorship misleading to say the least.


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The last decade has been characterised by a lively debate about “greed” and “grievance” as causes of civil wars. Before, arguments about the outbreak of civil wars focused on the irrationality and ‘essentially inexplicably primordial qualities’ of human beings (Pugh and Cooper, 2003 in Berdal, 2005, p. 688). However, at the start of the 21st century Collier and Hoeffler (2000) argued that their statistical data pointed towards economic incentives as being the main cause of the outbreak of violent rebellion.

There was wide-spread criticism of Collier and Hoeffler’s work. One such criticism focused on the fact that it is impossible to impose the type of generalisation of civil wars that they attempted in their work. Civil wars are caused by highly complex social processes that greatly depend on the historical and regional context. Therefore, it is important to study the causes of civil wars in the context of the specific case. In short, it is necessary to move from generalised statistics to case studies (Cramer, 2002; Nathan, 2005, p.11).

The Arab Spring provides new opportunities for the study of civil wars. The wave of protests has led to two violent rebellions: the Libyan revolutionary war and the Syrian civil war. Both are new case studies for the outbreak of violent rebellion and can therefore provide new insights into causes and motivations for civil war and the validity of greed and grievance factors as motivations. In order to do justice to the case, this paper will discuss whetherthe distinction between greed and grievance is useful to explain the outbreak of civil war in Libya.

Firstly, I determine the arrest of Fathi Terbil as the trigger event that marks the start of civil war. Then I consider the greed thesis and I conclude that the situation in Libya does not conform to the conditions for greed-based rebellion as put forward in Collier and Hoeffler’s original work. Nevertheless, there is a lack of research into the motivations of rebels to completely rule out that they were motivated by the prospect of oil income. In regards to grievances, several can be identified. Both vertical inequalities: economic grievances, a lack of political rights, and the lifestyle of the Gadaffi children, as well as horizontal inequalities: regional as well as tribal differences. This collection of grievances seems to have been the main motivation for Libyans to choose violent rebellion. However, most of these grievances have been present for at least a decade. We need to look at the ‘rebel’s dilemma’ and the role that government decisions played in allowing its own demise. When studying the outbreak of civil war, the distinction between grievances and opportunity might turn out to be more helpful.

The Start of the Libyan Civil War

In their original paper, Collier and Hoeffler use a number of 1.000 deaths per year as the baseline for ‘civil war’ (2000, p.4). However, other scholars argue that this is too rigid a distinction and that some conflicts with fewer casualties do share the characteristics of civil war (Nathan, 2005, p.15). This definition risks defining civil wars too late, or too early, and might define a peace when conflict is still ongoing. To overcome this, the ‘contested sovereignty situation’ definition can be used (Florea, 2012, p.87). This describes a situation in which different groups claim jurisdictions in (parts of) the territory. In Libya, the start of violent protests can be pinpointed on the arrest of Fathi Terbil. Protests for his release led to a brutal response by the regime and a ‘spiral of violence’ in the east (Pargeter, 2012, p.221). By the end of the month most of the east was out of Gadaffi’s control (ibid, p.223). By this time, the conflict can be described as a situation of contested sovereignty and thus as a civil war. The next two sections will focus on two explanations for the outbreak of civil war: greed-based and grievance-based motivations.

Greed-Based Explanations

In accordance with other revolutions during the Arab Spring, the Libyan rebel movement focused its narrative on demands for democratic reforms. However, Collier and Hoeffler (2000) argue that all rebellions are accompanied by a narrative of grievance, simply because publicly announcing greed-based motivations would lead to reduced support. As a consequence, their main explanation for the outbreak of conflict is greed: rebels are interested in the profits that they can make from predation upon primary commodities. Collier and Hoeffler argue that the main characteristics of civil war-prone states are: heavy reliance on primary commodity exports, a large percentage of unemployed and uneducated young men, and a sudden and rapid economic decline. Does the Libyan case conform to their definition? It does in part: the country strongly relies on primary commodity exports in the form of oil, and it had an estimated unemployment rate of 30% in 2004. However, up to 2011 the economic growth rate had been relatively stable and education indicators in Libya were relatively positive, with high literacy rates and more years of schooling than other states in the region (CIA, 2012 and Kabbani, 2005). Therefore it is questionable whether we could categorise Libya in the way that Collier and Hoeffler intended.

Additionally, their argument assumes that in states with those characteristics, the opportunity costs of rebellion are low and that citizens are thus likely to attempt to use it to capture the income from primary commodities. However, proxies of a potential for greed can often be used also as proxies for grievances, as exemplified by low schooling in Sierra Leone, which can both be a source of social anger and a reason for low opportunity costs for rebellion (Cramer, 2002, p.1853). With regard to Libya the interpretation could also be two-fold: either there were indeed rebels who saw an economic opportunity in taking control of the oil reserves in Libya, or the lack of distribution of income from oil should be regarded as a grievance that became part of a more general discontent with the policies of the Gadaffi regime.

Furthermore, the behaviour of rebels in the initial phase of the rebellion does not seem to confirm the greed thesis, as there were no reports of significant looting. Nevertheless, the role of oil would merit more study, as the rebels moved to control this resource fairly quickly and it would need to be confirmed that they limited themselves to controlling resources necessary for the war (England and Blas, 2011). As mentioned above, rebel movements have an incentive to portray to the outside world that grievances are their main motivation. As a result, without research that engages directly with their personal motivations it is impossible to determine whether quick profit from oil resources was a major motivation for the rebels. In short, while there were no signs of self-enrichment as a motivation for the rebels, it cannot be disproven that the prospect of riches was a reason for violence.

Another case in which greed-based motivations can come to play a more important role is when the conflict drags on for a long time. Economic interests develop for groups that want to take advantage of the conflict (Keen, 2000, p.27). Evidence for this in Libya is provided by Dirk Vandewalle (2012b) in an interview with Foreign Affairs on ‘rogue militias’ which developed in Libya during the war and that still attempt to profit from violence after the overthrow of Gadaffi. The role of oil can possibly be seen in this light: apart from being a lifeline for the rebel movement, revolutionaries could quickly get an incentive for, or established interest in, control over oil.

Grievances in Libya

In contrast to the greed-thesis as proposed by Collier and Hoeffler, many scholars still argue that the historic record shows grievances as an important motivation for violent rebellion. Frances Stewart (2002) distinguishes between two types of inequalities: vertical and horizontal. The former refers to inequalities as measured on a societal level between individuals, while the latter measures inequalities between social groups, where one social group is marginalised compared to others. Stewart further argues that both vertical and horizontal inequalities can be motivations for civil war, with horizontal inequalities at least equally likely a cause of conflict, because ‘[where they] coincide with economic and political differences between groups, this can cause deep resentment that may lead to violent struggles’ (Stewart and Brown in Stewart, 2010, p.2). When studying the case of Libya, vertical grievances can be found in terms of the economic position of the population, the lack of political rights and the behaviour of Gadaffi’s family. Additionally, horizontal grievances exist between regions and between tribes.

Firstly, the Libyan society has suffered under the economic policies of the regime. In the 1990s, international sanctions were imposed on Libya that mainly hit the poorer citizens. To make matters worse, the sanctions regime was abused by the rich class, who managed to sell off food allowances and gained unique access to foreign products. In the meantime, public services were eroded (Pargenter, 2012, pp.172-3). As a result, the gap between the rich and poor in Libya widened. In 2003 this worsened, as subsidies were removed, thereby further angering Libyans (ibid, p.194-5). The combination of poor employment opportunities and the fact that education levels strongly increased in recent decades can be seen as a major source of vertical economic grievance, as it was impossible for citizens to work on the level that they were trained for (Campante and Chor, 2012).

Secondly, political power was uniformly in the hands of the regime. Regional political bodies were ineffective, and Gadaffi was the only one to make political decisions. It was an authoritarian police state without political parties which violated the legal rights of all those that opposed it. Opposition to the regime was kept low through fear. Responses to protests were violent, and prisoners faced torture and executions (Simons, 2003, pp.101-107). These measures ensured the regime’s hold on power for a long time, but also caused widespread resentment. Thirdly, in a country that traditionally valued a sober lifestyle, the Gadaffi children exhibited their Western luxuries to the whole population. This further aggravated resentment (Pargenter, 2012, p.211).

Fourthly, the conflict in Libya is characterised by a strong regional division. Historically, the east has been the centre of resistance against Gadaffi. During the second half of the 1990s, Benghazi had been the centre of an Islamist uprising against the regime. According to Pargenter, Gadaffi’s response was to keep the East in a ‘constant state of underdevelopment’, in order to make it feel what it means to challenge the regime (2012, pp.170-1). The Gadaffi policies towards the East were important in forming the necessary resentment for a prolonged rebellion. In 2001, 76% of the citizens in Benghazi felt alienated from the political process and sought change (Warshel, 2012, p.735). It was the East that finally rose up against the regime, with Benghazi as its most important city.

Fifthly, Gadaffi had long exploited the tribal differences in Libya. Initially, Gadaffi played out the different tribes against each other, with three tribes as the main pillars under his regime. After an attempted coup by the Warfalla tribe in 1993, the Libyan leadership consisted entirely of members of the Gadaffa, the leader’s own tribe (Martinez, 2007, p.99). This way Gadaffi ensured their loyalty to the regime. As a consequence the rest of the population had no perspective at representation or improving its position and was kept on a leash through coercion. It is argued that tribal loyalties shaped allegiances during the revolution, although they were less important than the regional division (Lacher, 2011, pp.144-5).

Each of these factors can be argued to have played a role in inciting resistance against Gadaffi’s regime. As a whole, they led to the image of a Gadaffi regime that was illegitimate and, certainly for those in the East and from outside the Gadaffa tribe, as a regime that caused a lot of suffering. Based on the narrative of the protests, these are the concerns that were crucial in motivating people to take up violent rebellion. However, as with greed-based motivations, we need more detailed research into the motivation of individuals to be certain about which factors were more prominent in driving their behaviour.

The Role of Opportunity

Having established that grievances provide a more likely explanation as a motivation for conflict in Libya than greed, are greed and grievance a useful distinction to explain rebellion? According to Berdal (2005, p.689): ‘the conceptual distinction between greed and grievance is not in fact terribly useful, either in explaining the motivation or persistence of wars’ (italics in original). He argues that, in recent works, scholars have moved to regard the opportunity for violence as the more relevant object of study under the ‘greed’ category. In response, Collier modified his greed thesis to focus on the feasibility of rebellion (Keen, 2012, p.757). In the next section, I will consider the opportunity for rebellion in Libya.

For this, it can be helpful to look at rebellion as a collective action problem. Lichbach (1994) calls this the ‘Rebel’s Dilemma’: the problem that people generally do not participate in protests. In their choice whether or not protest, a rational actor would weigh the costs and benefits of protesting. People who take the decision to take to the street risk punishment from the regime, for example in the form of violence or imprisonment. On the other hand, the decision is determined by the chance that the protest succeeds to overthrow the regime. A more advanced model of these choices can be found in Heckathorn (1988). Solving the Rebel’s Dilemma is a dynamic process. The government tries to prevent the rebels from succeeding in overcoming the Rebel’s Dilemma, whereas the rebels, to the extent that they are organised, try to find a strategy to overcome the collective action problem.

In the case of Libya before 2011, the Gadaffi government was very consistent in its approach to prevent protests from spreading. ‘The state apparatus [Gadaffi] created persisted for so long not through legitimate support, but because the regime simply [was not, or could not be] opposed’ (Warshel, 2012, p.734). In such a situation, fear for repression can become a more important concern than countering grievances. As long as the regime has the organisational capacity to keep rebels in check, and the protesters lack strength and cohesion, a leader will manage to stay in power (Potocki, 2011, p.57). In 2011, the protests in Libya finally gained momentum. In that regard, a possible explanation is the unique regional context: the early Arab Spring protests showed that the autocratic regimes were not all-powerful in cracking down on dissidents (Kneissl, 2011), lowering the perceived opportunity costs for protesters.

Beyond ‘Greed and Grievance’

The case of Libya seems to suggest that even though grievances played an important role as a motivation for rebellion, the specific circumstances of 2011 were crucial in allowing the outbreak of civil war. It was the simultaneous existence of grievances and the right set of conditions for an opportunity for rebellion that both made civil war necessary, and allowed it to take place. In other words, these conditions allowed the Rebel’s Dilemma to be overcome. Collier focuses his more recent writings on economic opportunity (Keen, 2012, p.757), where people rebel because they expect to gain a higher income as a result. However, the case of Libya suggests that we should look at a concept of opportunity that takes non-economic factors into account. In Libya the first of these factors is the behaviour of the Gadaffi government, reducing its internal legitimacy and isolating itself from outside support through violent actions and rhetoric (Whitaker, 2011). Additionally, in contrast to what Collier et al. argue it was the increase in education that played a role in allowing the revolution to take flight. People with high levels of education are generally more likely to get politically involved (Champante and Chor, 2012, p.174). This, amongst others, was likely to play a role in allowing the rapid organisation of the opposition after the start of the protests (Pargenter, 2012).


Grievances of the Libyan population have long-established roots, but it was not until 2011 that they finally found an effective way to express those grievances. The sequence of events seems to suggest that violent rebellion in Libya was strongly grievance-induced. In general, it can be said, that the distinction between greed and grievance only provides a limited explanation of the outbreak of civil wars. It is useful to provide a categorisation of different potential motivations. However, as previous case studies have already shown, greed and grievance factors often interact and the distinction thus falsely assumes that these are two distinct analytical categories (Berdal, 2005, p.691). The more important question is to what extent the grievances are perceived as fundamental enough for citizens to rebel and whether they perceive that a rebellion is viable. Only by mapping the individual motivations of Libyan rebels it becomes possible to determine which motivation was more crucial in their decision to fight. In general, in order to fully grasp the causes of the civil war, it would be helpful to focus on research that attempts to determine individual rebels’ motivations for joining the struggle.

All in all, while grievances seemed to play an important role as a motivation in Libya, ‘greed’ does not provide a convincing explanation. Opportunity would be a more appropriate phrase, as the economic motivations do not come forward out of greed but rather out of the feasibility of the revolution. These economic opportunities also require several non-economic conditions that make protests possible. Lastly, it would be most helpful to study the interplay of opportunity and grievances: where the two coincide, the chances of civil war breaking out are the highest.


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Written by: Wim van Doorn
Written at: King’s College London
Written for: Mats Berdal
Date written: December 2012

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