The endless cycle that is Libya

We are observing the uneven, hypothetical transition from a two government debacle to one government...

Dr. Theodore Karasik

Published: Updated:

As the Government of National Accord (GNA) tries to set up its government in Tripoli, Libya continues to lurch from crisis to crisis. We are observing the uneven, hypothetical transition from a two government debacle- represented by the General National Council (GNC) in Tripoli (Tripolitania) and the House of Representatives in Tobruk (Cyrenaica) – to one government.

This endless cycle is benefiting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Libya. The country continues to fracture because there is no lasting unanimity on the ground regarding a unified Libya. GNA Prime Minister Fayyez Serraj and his colleagues face a mixed environment even in their slated capital Tripoli.

The GNA is emerging from the Abu Seta naval base to now collude with a bloc of the GNC who literally split itself from the GNA without following the process set forth by the December 2015 Libyan Political Agreement.

It should be noted that the 73 GNC members – out of 200 – who threw their support to Serraj are known as the Wefaq Bloc and are, in reality, supporters of the former Libya Dawn brigade, which consists of Muslim Brotherhood and former Libyan Islamic Fighters Group, or Al-Qaeda. Back to square one!

Serraj and his 73 former GNC cronies want one thing, and one thing only – frozen Libyan assets abroad. But all is not normal: Throughout Tripoli and Misrata anti GNA graffiti and banners are beginning to appear.

Yet Serraj needs support from the militias in Tripolitania, especially the Misratans and Zintanians, if he is to get a grip on the situation. The Misratans, whose business acumen is legendary, seem to be supporting him.

Potential good news for the GNA is that a prisoner swap occurred with Misrata, exchanging 16 members of the Magarha tribe - including Commander Mohamed bin Nael - for six of its own held in Zintan. Outside Tripoli, the Union of Southern Municipalities, centered in Jufrah, is supporting the GNA for now.

ISIS in Libya is growing stronger - close to 10,000 fighters - and occupies prime coastal real estate that helps it import more fighters from the Levant, and aids its illicit economy via smuggling and crime

Dr. Theodore Karasik

However, the GNA’s entry - pushed with U.N. support - is galvanizing various tribes, factions and interest groups against Serraj. In Cyrenaica, General Khalifa Haftar is being deluged by political and military supporters, including a faction from the Petroleum Facilities Guard, to rally around the East in a show of regionalist fervor against the Serraj government.

The Cyrenaica faction has three options: Continue the campaign against ISIS, as demonstrated in Benghazi; go for a confrontation that many observers have been fearing with a clash in Tripoli; or wait until the GNA begins to split from centrifugal forces over money and power, and take advantage of the chaos. Time will tell.


ISIS in Libya is growing stronger - close to 10,000 fighters - and occupies prime coastal real estate that helps it import more fighters from the Levant, and aids its illicit economy via smuggling and crime. Attacks on energy infrastructure, airstrips, security and police, and other acts such as implementing their warped version of sharia law, help build ISIS’s momentum and prowess.

Consequently, last month it assaulted several Tunisian border cities and towns. These probes are a hallmark of ISIS’s strategy, learned from the battlefields of the Levant, where the extremists thrive on local grievances and tribal networks and their discontent.

Although the West sees the GNA as the gateway government to deal with ISIS in Libya, political fault lines are detrimental to that plan. ISIS knows this, and seeks to take advantage of the vacuum. It also knows, from Palymra in Syria, that attacking UNESCO world-heritage sites can earn the ire of the international community.

Libya has five such sites, including Cyrene, a Greek colony founded in 631 BC; Leptis Magna, the Roman seat of power in North Africa; Tadrart Acacus, with prehistoric rock art dating from 12,000 BC to 100 AD; and Ghadames, one of the oldest pre-Saharan cities still in existence. These sites are all on the chopping block, from ISIS’s point of view.

Here lies the conundrum: While the West seeks GNA approval for open intervention after Serraj and the United Nations finish their experiment in establishing full governance over Libya, anti-GNA Libyans do not want overt international intervention. They want the not-so-covert support of UK and US Special Forces, and Egyptian weapons, to continue.

To the chagrin of some Libyans, U.S. and European drones and fighter jets are targeting ISIS in the north of the country, where Libya’s cultural history lies. This coastline is probably the richest resource of undiscovered archaeology in the Mediterranean. From the extremists’ point of view, the more destruction the better since it fits their narrative of erasing history.

For many Libyans, the Serraj government is not the final answer; the GNA is at best a band aid on a political problem, where instead a tourniquet is required from within to stem ISIS. The GNA may simply not be up to the task, but neither is full-blown international invention the best idea either.

From the Libyan perspective, Southern Europe is only focusing on migrants, energy, and terrorism, and not the bigger picture of the plight of Libyans themselves who may very well end up suffering just as other victims of warfare in the Levant as Libya’s cleavage widens.

Dr. Theodore Karasik is a Gulf-based analyst of regional geo-political affairs. He received his Ph.D in History from UCLA in Los Angeles, California in four fields: Middle East, Russia, Caucasus, and a specialized sub-field in Cultural Anthropology focusing on tribes and clans. He tweets @tkarasik.

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