Libya: Five Years Later

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Middle East Policy Council

Five years on from the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, Libya continues to serve as a reminder of the unfulfilled promise of the so-called Arab Spring. Rocked by violence, infighting and political instability, Libya now finds itself an unwilling host to the Islamic State, the brutal Islamist force that is tearing Syria and Iraq apart. Many now fear the worst for Libya, despite the recent involvement of international actors, including air strikes from the United States, special forces from France and diplomatic pushes from Turkey. But whether foreign help will be enough to prevent ISIS from cementing its foothold in the country remains to be seen.

Reflecting on Libya’s continuing violence and instability, the Saudi Gazette editorial draws a line between “The manner of Gaddafi’s death … [and] the unbridled violence that has overtaken the country. He left Libya with no proper institutions, no well-trained bureaucracy and no well-developed civic pride, save the historic rivalry of individual towns and cities, reminiscent of medieval Italian city states….The international community wants a new government in place so it can be invited to attack the terrorists….The terrorists are already infiltrating Tripoli and attacking vulnerable oil installations. While, for geographic reasons,  Daesh may be more vulnerable to attack in Libya, this second Libyan  NATO intervention is sadly likely to compound the chaos that already grips the country.”

In a recent editorial, The Peninsula’s editorial staff expresses concerns over the fact that ISIS appears to have made some inroads in Libya: “Some of the worst fears about Libya are coming true. In an alarming development, the Islamic State jihadists briefly occupied the heart of a Libyan city near Tripoli yesterday but were ousted by militia fighters….Destroying the jihadist network in Libya will not be easy given the current chaos in the country and the international community will need a multi-pronged strategy that should involve, among other things, the installation of a federal government in Tripoli which has control over the entire country. A political solution is a must for the elimination of terrorists….Libya has become a strategic territory to terrorists due to a slew of factors. Isis fighters are arriving from Tunisia and the sub-Saharan Africa, mingling with thousands of migrants crossing the Sahara on their way to Europe.”

According to a report by Asharq Alawsat, ISIS is eyeing the country’s oil fields, though a scorched earth strategy seems to be its modus operandi for the time being: “The head of the National Oil Corporation (NOC) said on Monday that more attacks on Libya’s oil facilities are likely unless a United Nations-backed unity government is approved. Militants have hit one oilfield just last week. The last attack on Libya’s oil infrastructure took place on late Thursday or Friday when suspected ISIS militants set fire to one production tank and damaged another at the Fida oil field, Reuters said citing Mustafa Sanalla. Fida is located south-west of the oil terminals of Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, where militants staged repeated assaults and wreaked havoc last month.”

Abdelkader Assad, writing for the Libya Observer, compares Libya’s ongoing challenges to a drama, the conclusion of which is yet to be revealed: “As years of freedom rang five, Libya and its long-yearned-for revolution is still struggling to prove it deserves to be stable, secure, and in full control of its territories, though all what the Libyans aspired for is still put on the back burner…. division is on the ascendency in a country that is already formed by tribal and regional fabric. The fabric that was also fueled by the abundant amounts of bloodshed across the country as different warring parties conflicted to win the upper hand in power….In a nutshell, Libya is a play, well plotted with characters, each of which is trying to prove it deserves to be the protagonist, and if not, it would risk it all and play as the antagonist to defeat whoever opposes it and reign solely in the country. Would Libya climax? Or is it already climaxing now? Because if it is, we will all witness the denouement and thus see the conflict and the crisis untangle revealing the mysteries behind Libya’s, tragic or happy ending.”

The problem is that, as this Gulf Today editorial points out, the situation in Libya is only worsening, and the international community needs to do more and more urgently: “The situation in Libya is extremely distressing. A UN human rights report has documented thousands of cases of beheadings, arbitrary detention and torture involving electrocution and beatings with pipes and cables in the country. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has revealed that it has reasonable grounds to believe that all parties have been involved in the violations of human rights law in Libya. The report has cited assassinations, attempted murder, kidnapping and arbitrary detention of journalists, judges and prosecutors and activists. Threats, assaults and harassment against women appear to be aimed at sending a wider message that they should keep quiet in public…..Libyan people crave for peace and that’s what the international community should help the country achieve, without any more delay.”

There is some good news, but even when that is the case, the reality of Libyan politics is such that the scorecard is almost always mixed. For example, there are reports that the Libyan army has been scoring some victories as of late, but suspicions about the military leadership remain: “The Libyan army has this week scored a notable success in its fight against Daesh (the self-proclaimed IS) and its local al-Qaeda offshoot, Ansar Al-Sharia. For the best part of 18 months, the army has been struggling to clear the terrorists out of the southwest of Benghazi, Libya’s second city…. The victor in Benghazi is Khalifa Haftar, the former Gaddafi general who rebelled against the dictator and who was appointed to head the army by the internationally recognized parliament, the House of Representatives, currently based in Tobruk…. The problem for NATO, as it gears up to attack Daesh positions in Sirte and the surrounding northern coast, is that Haftar’s victory threatens to unravel the Government of National Accord, which is made up of both rebel and HOR supporters. The rebel ministers are implacably opposed to Haftar and the idea that he should lead the Libyan armed forces.”

But, as the threat to Europe increases, some European countries are stepping up their efforts. Gulf News’s Marwan Kabalan doesn’t believe such moves will be sufficient to push back ISIS gains in Libya: “Special French Commando forces have recently arrived in Benghazi, Libya, to support local efforts in the fight against the expanding power of Daesh (the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) in the oil-rich North African country. Given the growing concerns in western capitals about Daesh’s attempts to establish a foothold merely 300km off the European coasts and the possibility of taking over the major oil fields in the country, the French move was widely expected….In light of the escalating U.S.-led campaign in Syria and Iraq, the possibility of Daesh militants regrouping in Libya — particularly those of North African descent — has been touted recently as an increasingly likely prospect. In many ways, Libya provides an ideal environment for the growing of Daesh’s power: vast territories, the lack of a central authority, and the presence of large oil wealth….Whatever form the western military intervention will take to prevent Daesh from establishing strong presence in Libya, it would need to be justified on legal and political grounds.”

Others are also looking for ways to halt the progress of ISIS militants in Libya, as part of a larger regional strategy against fundamentalists, with Hurriyet Daily News reporting on recent efforts by Turkish and Egyptian government officials to coordinate their response despite their mutual distrust: “Turkey has expressed willingness for Egypt to take part in a proposed working group formed to coordinate international efforts in Libya, which has been mired in conflict following an uprising that toppled veteran leader Muammar Gaddafi five years ago, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu has said….Ties between Ankara and Cairo have been strained since former army chief el-Sisi toppled Morsi, who is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, after mass protests against his rule….In early February, while in Washington for bilateral talks with the Obama administration, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said the international community should not intervene against ISIL expansion in Libya until a Libyan government was formed and requested such assistance.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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