To those from the outside, revolution seemed to have a domino effect in the Middle East. But while long-suppressed dissatisfaction brought startling turnarounds in Tunisia and Egypt, the uprising in Libya amounted to a bloody civil war.
Unlike Hosni Mubarak or Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Colonel Moammar Gadhafi was a military man, and a brutal one at that. The de facto leader of Libya since 1969, Gadhafi was known beyond his borders for his roles in terrorist acts, such as the Lockerbie bombing. Within Libya, citizens witnessed public hangings of students and prison massacres, endured food stampedes and torture. The man who came to power in an Arab revolt wasn’t going to step down during one.
A hidden massacre
What set off Libya was a massacre that went back 15 years: Inmates, anywhere from 1,200 to 1,500, were killed over the course of three hours at Abu Salim, a political prison. Gadhafi’s reign hid the bodies, refused to release victim names, and arrested those who protested. Human rights activist and lawyer Fathi Terbil represented the families, an action that led to his arrest seven times.
But this last arrest on February 15 came just within a week of Egypt prime minister Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. Fellow lawyers, peers, and later the victims’ families protested at the Benghazi courthouse. The crowd swelled to 2,000, and Terbil, like before, was released. But the dawn release wasn’t enough, and Benghazi — the country’s second largest city — fell.
Fighting broke out, and Gadhafi’s forces gained back territories. NATO’s involvement began March 17 with a no-fly zone, and then the entry of military aircraft and ships from France, Italy, Great Britain, and the United States. For Americans, the sudden entry surprised some: Questions like “where is libya on a map,” “what’s going on in libya,” “who are the libyan rebels,” and “why are we at war with libya” surged. Despite his repressive regime and acts of terrorism, Gadhafi in later years had lately been known for his eccentric costuming, the tents he briefly set up in New York during a United Nations visit, and his coterie of female bodyguards.
In a weekly address, President Obama called the conflict a potential bloodbath and later, in his March 28 speech, a “looming humanitarian crisis.” The Libyan “brother leader” resorted to civilian vehicles to hide from air strikes, while rebels both ill-armed and ill-trained posed their own set of issues. Leadership cracks showed, though, as yet another long-time Gadhafi adjutant — such as Mousa Kousa, the foreign minister accused of being a “terror mastermind” — took a private jet out of Tripoli and escaped to Britain.
Holy month, civil war
By the time the holy month of Ramadan came in August, the Libyan people suffered from mass hunger, and an estimated 50,000 were dead after six months of civil war. Then the rebels captured Tripoli, the capital city. Gadhafi fled into hiding, but not a silent one, after his compound was raided and ransacked August 23.
His retreat there was what one of Gadhafi’s men called a “suicide mission,” and he apparently said, “I prefer to die by Libyan hands.” He did, on October 20, in an act now under investigation by the National Transitional Council. His 1969 coup had been hailed as bloodless, but his ending was not so. Rebels tracked the colonel to a drain outside his hometown of Sirte. The 69-year-old was dragged out. Accounts differ, but gruesome videos of his last moments circulated online. His body was put on display, and Libyans came by to see proof that the “brother leader” was indeed gone.
His son, Moatassem Gadhafi, was also killed. His other son, Saif al-Islam, was captured a month later and faces trial. Libya ended its seven-month civil war and now faces the even tougher task of building its future without resorting to the same tactics that paralyzed the nation for decades.
Vera H-C Chan has been the editorial lead for Yahoo! Year in Review five years running.