The Libyan National Transitional Council: Lessons for a Postwar Libya

The Libyan National Transitional Council: Lessons for a Postwar Libya


The Libyan National Transitional Council (NTC) was formed at the start of the February 2011 uprising to represent the Libyan people and to write a new constitution. It also coordinated the military defeat of dictator Moammar Qadhafi. Once this was achieved, it appointed an interim cabinet to run the government until a new elected congress was in place. Following these elections, which took place in July 2012, the NTC handed over power to a new General National Congress (GNC), whose mandate was to organize elections for a Constitution Drafting Assembly and eventually a new parliament.

Nearly two years after taking seat, the GNC oversaw elections for a new parliament, the Libyan House of Representatives (HOR), but turnout was scandalously low due to rising insecurity and disillusionment with the elected GNC representatives. As a result of the weak legitimacy of the HOR and the anger of some GNC members over the electoral process and outcome, the Tripoli-based GNC refused to step down, forcing the HOR to take seat in the eastern city of Tobruk. Armed coalitions soon divided into warring factions, each supporting one of the two new governments. A civil war had thus begun.

Today, a new transitional government in Libya is taking seat. It was elected by delegates to the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, a United Nations-led dialogue process that built on earlier attempts to mediate Libya’s ongoing conflict. The transitional government will govern until national elections are held in December 2021. Thus, like the NTC, it will need to establish control over a fragile security environment while reassuring Libyans that it is neither a new dictator-in-disguise nor the agent of foreign powers.

The experience of the NTC provides several lessons for the current transition government and for any future attempts to rebuild stability. These include lessons about establishing national unity, managing international intervention, and the importance of inclusion in transitional justice.

National unity

The NTC struggled throughout its tenure to keep Libyans united. For instance, the process of drafting its Transitional Constitutional Declaration, promulgated in August 2011 — although a symbolically important step — was fraught with controversy. The NTC came under significant pressure from Federalists and Islamists as well as minority groups such as the Amazigh to amend the drafts according to their demands.[i] As a result, many were unhappy with the final version, and some suspected that certain groups had taken advantage of the pressure the NTC faced to rapidly move toward elections to push through their own agenda. Even after the declaration had been finalized and an electoral law had been passed, the NTC made a last-minute change to the electoral roadmap it had produced, further demonstrating its inability to withstand external pressure.

Restoring the capital to Tripoli was a signal that a new political system could be built without seeking retribution against the old.

Similarly, after Qadhafi was defeated, the NTC announced that Tripoli would be restored as the national capital, moving it back from Benghazi, where the revolution began. The decision seemed practical: central ministries were operating at very low capacity, and the NTC may have wanted to take advantage of the existing infrastructure in Tripoli. The move would also dilute the impression that the NTC’s own leaders, from the region most marginalized by Qadhafi (the east), were aiming to seize control. In short, restoring the capital to Tripoli was a signal that a new political system could be built without seeking retribution against the old.

Moving the capital, however, only contributed to the dissatisfaction among NTC supporters that began with the decision to include former regime supporters. It reinforced Libya’s historical regional divisions and disparate identities by “reviv[ing] memories of the old split between Tripolitania (the West) and Cyrenaica (East), with the underdeveloped southern provinces left to pick sides.”[ii] Thus, although intended to be unifying, the move did not have a unifying effect.

Nothing suggests that today’s new interim executive authorities are any more likely than the NTC to act as a united body.

Overall, despite sincere efforts to build an inclusive transition process, the NTC was internally divided, succumbing to the demands of sub-national groups and falling prey to suspicions of alternative agendas. This was also due to its haste. Nothing suggests that today’s new interim executive authorities – comprising a Prime Minister from the influential but rivaled town of Misrata and a Presidential Council with one representative each from the west, east, and south – are any more likely than the NTC to act as a united body.[iii] The legacy of competing identities in Libya, combined with high levels of mistrust and a mandate even more limited than that of the NTC (scarcely ten months to organize national elections) will only add to this challenge. Without a united, internally cohesive body to lead the next transition phase, the same regional and communal tensions are likely to complicate decision-making.

International intervention

A second lesson from the experience of the NTC is the double-edged nature of international assistance. From early on, the NTC focused much attention on courting the international community. It needed military support to defeat Qadhafi, and some central NTC members who had returned from exile as dissidents or defectors had strong ties internationally. Some were even accused of being more closely tied to these foreign allies than to Libyan interests.[iv] Support was initially provided by countries such as Qatar and France (who would ultimately support competing sides in the conflict), and later by the United States, the United Kingdom, and others.

However, some members of the international community had agendas of their own. UN Security Council Resolution 1973, passed in March 2011, imposed sanctions on the Qadhafi-led government and called for a military intervention to prevent deaths of Libyan civilians, leading to the formation of a NATO-led coalition and the creation of a no-fly zone. Although the resolution called for protecting civilians, and not explicitly for the removal of Qadhafi – which would have been opposed by permanent Security Council members Russia and China – the NTC and its Western backers dismissed Qadhafi’s offers to negotiate and offers by international actors, such as the African Union, to mediate. The absence of evidence of any real threat of ethnic cleansing and the history of antagonism with Qadhafi also suggest that many of the NTC’s partners may have in reality been aiming for regime change all along.[v]

Other countries made no secret of their use of the Libyan uprising to further their own interests. Qatar insisted on funding militias with whom it had personal connections.[vi] Sudan, which sent “everything from light weapons to heavy artillery” to the rebels, wanted to bring down Qadhafi because of his support for the Sudanese rebel movement, the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM).[vii] However, because support from Qatar and Sudan often strengthened Islamist-leaning militias, they came into conflict with other countries, including the United States and France. Meanwhile several Western countries, driven by non-humanitarian motivations such as countering terrorism, deepened their involvement. Libya soon became a staging ground for other regional and international conflicts.

Once Qadhafi had been defeated and the goal of the NATO mission achieved, the NTC’s priorities shifted. Given the clear need for reconstruction, many urged international presence in the form of a peacekeeping force or Demobilization, Disarmament, and Reintegration (DDR) assistance.[viii] Yet the NTC declined offers for such assistance. It faced a dilemma: while international assistance was badly needed for reconstruction and stabilization, refusing this support would lend the Council credibility among Libyans. This refusal may have stemmed from any number of historical, national, and contextual reasons, including a “deep-rooted Libyan sense of…pride in Arabism and Islam that restricts alliance with foreigners and/or infidels” or the “negative impact the Iraq war had upon the psyche of Libyans who had no desire of transforming their homeland into a ‘gas station for Westerners.’”[ix] In hindsight, experts have wondered whether more insistence by international partners on providing stabilization assistance could have helped stave off conflict.

Today’s transition government in Libya, unlike the NTC, owes its existence to the international community.

Today’s transition government in Libya, unlike the NTC, owes its existence to the international community. It was elected via a political dialogue forum convened by the UN, the result of several years of mediation efforts. Although many questioned the legitimacy of this forum, the roadmap it produced is nonetheless Libya’s only current alternative to continued armed conflict. The new transition government can benefit from assistance of foreign actors in technical areas, including security sector reform and electoral assistance, but the risk of their interference in political matters will not disappear, and threaten to undermine support for the government.

Transitional justice

Finally, the NTC took several decisions that affected ideas about how Qadhafi-era officials should be treated and how transitional justice should be addressed. It struggled from the start to establish control over the proliferating armed groups that opposed the former regime. Many of these groups had secured independent sources of funding, including from Gulf states. In an attempt to deter these militias and establish a centralized chain of command, the NTC offered to pay salaries to anyone who registered with its Supreme Security Council, which was meant to fulfill state security functions which had crumbled with the Qadhafi regime. But this decision may have perversely incentivized more militias to take up arms, thus further weakening NTC control over security.[xi] It may also have given de facto legitimacy to these militias, who claimed that they, and not official state security institutions, should be trusted based on their “revolutionary” status.[xii] At the same time, due to the weak authority of the NTC, the salaries did nothing to reinforce national loyalties, and competition for power among local groups increased.[xiii]

The growing claim to authority by the “revolutionary” militias over state security fostered an environment in which old regime security individuals and institutions were harshly excluded. Such an environment may have helped lay the groundwork for the Political Isolation Law later adopted by the GNC – a sweeping measure that categorically excluded from politics individuals who were involved with the former regime. Some have even argued that the NTC, in its zeal to avoid the lessons learned from de-Baathification in Iraq, further inflamed the “rebels’” drive for revenge.[xiv]

It may be instructive to compare attempts at transitional justice in Libya to those of transitional authorities in Tunisia in 2011, where “revolutionaries” also attempted to seize decision-making roles in the immediate aftermath of the fall of former president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. In Tunisia, where these revolutionaries ended up sharing decision-making power with individuals close to the former regime, the transitional justice process began with the appointment of fact-finding commissions meant to gather evidence on past crimes, including both corruption-related crimes and human rights abuses. In addition, an interim political reform committee may have discouraged future lawmakers from adopting legislation that would exclude former regime members. In its interim electoral legislation, this makeshift parliament specified the exclusion of three types of individuals: former members of the party of Ben Ali, the Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD), who had served as ministers; individuals who had held positions of high responsibility within the party; and individuals who had publicly called for Ben Ali’s reelection in 2014. This represented a compromise between those calling for all RCD members and supporters to be excluded and those who wanted none excluded. These early decisions of interim authorities in Tunisia to find compromise and avoid broad exclusionary measures, including by collecting and documenting evidence, were followed three years later by an elected parliament’s narrowly voting to reject a proposed “lustration” bill, which would have excluded all former RCD members from running in the next elections and from holding a number of civil service positions for ten years.

The conflict in Libya that has unfolded since the fall of the Qadhafi regime has been rife with human rights abuses and impunity, and rebuilding peace will require addressing the harms done to large numbers of Libyans. Once again, the next transition government must establish control over armed groups who claim legitimacy based on their rejection of status quo politicians, whom many Libyans see as benefitting from the conflict at their own expense.[xv] Achieving a political environment of balance and inclusion will depend, in part, on their success in fact-finding rather than retribution. This pursuit would offer a counter-objective to those seeking to enhance their own standing by calling for new political isolation measures and would provide a basis for a future government to build a national reconciliation process.


The National Transition Council in Libya played a key role in facilitating the downfall of the Qadhafi regime and organizing Libya’s first post-uprising elections. However, it also took several decisions that in hindsight are considered mistakes and from which authorities in post-conflict Libya can learn. Avoiding such mistakes going forward will require patience and commitment to overcoming Libya’s conflict.

[i] See Youssef Sawani and Jason Pack, “Libyan Constitutionality and Sovereignty Post-Qadhafi: the Islamist, Regionalist, and Amazigh Challenges,” Journal of North African Studies 18, No. 4 (2013).
[ii] “Libya: The Struggle for the Centre,” Africa Confidential 52, no. 22 (4 November 2011).
[iii] Emmadeddin Badi and Wolfram Lacher, “Agree to Disagree: Libya’s New Unity Government.” Sada (8 February 2021), .
[iv] Wolfram Lacher, “Families, Tribes, and Cities in the Libyan Revolution,” Middle East Policy XVIII, no. 4 (2011): 150; Barak Barfi, “Transitional National What? Libyans Still Don’t Know who their New Leaders Are.” The New Republic, August 31, 2011.
[v] Hugh Roberts, “Who Said Qadhafi Had to Go?” London Review of Books 33, no. 22 (17 November 2011): 8-18.
[vi] International Crisis Group, “Holding Libya Together: Security Challenges after Qadhafi,” (Brussels: International Crisis Group, December 2011): 21 n. 160.
[vii] Alex de Waal, “African Roles in the Libyan Conflict of 2011,” International Affairs 89, no. 2 (2013): 376-378.
[viii] E.g. Jason Pack, Karim Mezran, and Mohammed Eljahr, “Libya’s Faustian Bargains,” (Washington, DC: The Atlantic Council, 2014): 12 and 44.
[ix] Yousef Sawani, “The February 17 Intifada in Libya: Disposing of the Regime and Issues of State-building,” in Rene Laremont, ed., Revolution, Revolt and Reform in North Africa: The Arab Spring and Beyond, (London: Routledge, 2013): 95.
[x] Derek Chollet and Benjamin Fishman, “Who Lost Libya?” Foreign Affairs 94, No. 3 (2015): 156-157.
[xi] Karim Mezran quoted in Jacob Mundy, Libya (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2018): 149.
[xii] See Mieczyslaw P. Boduszynski and Sabina Henneberg, “Explaining Divergent Pathways of Post Arab Spring Change.” Paper presented at the Eleventh Annual Conference of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA), Washington, DC (3 November 2018).
[xiii] Wolfram Lacher, “Was Libya’s Collapse Predictable?” Survival 59, no. 2 (2017): 146.
[xiv] Nicholas Pelham, “Libya in the Shadow of Iraq: The ‘Old Guard’ Versus the Thuwwar in the Battle for Stability,” International Peacekeeping 19, no. 4.
[xv] Tarek Mergerisi, “Spoiler Alert: How Europe can Save Diplomacy in Libya.” European Council on Foreign Relations Policy Brief (22 January 2021), .

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