Put simply, the crisis could be framed as a contest between Islamist and Arab nationalists -- a familiar trope throughout the Arab world. But there are other factors at play, including regional rivalries, rump parliaments and outside agendas that don't always align neatly. Here are the key actors at present in the Libyan maelstrom:
Even when it held sway in Tripoli, Libya's central government was a fragile institution, beholden to the myriad factions surrounding it. Amid the current fighting, its deputies fled to the eastern city of Tobruk in early August, where they now limply attempt to govern the country. The MPs were elected in late June, replacing an earlier iteration of the national assembly that critics say was dominated by Islamists.
But some of the officials of the former parliament have convened in Tripoli under the auspices of the Islamist rebels and formed a parallel rump government that considers the June election invalid.
The government in Tobruk is the one recognized by the majority of the international community and is pleading for outside help -- although not necessarily direct intervention -- to stabilize the country. At a meeting in Cairo on Tuesday, Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdel Aziz said the Islamist militias are "stronger than the government itself, and now possess arms even more sophisticated than the government."
Ever since the fall of Gaddafi, central authority in the country has been weak. Libya's fledgling democracy was subordinate to the power politics of rival militias and other factions. Its standing army, meanwhile, had far less control than the men with guns who led the rebellion against Gaddafi and have dominated the status quo thereafter.
Gen. Khalifa Haftar and the "Libyan National Army"
Haftar has emerged as the most high profile individual fighting Libya's Islamist militias. A former general during the Gaddafi-era who fell out with the dictator, he is also a U.S. citizen who lived under shadowy circumstances as an exiled opposition leader in Virginia for years. Haftar returned to Libya during the civil war in 2011 and became a prominent figure. In May, he and his self-declared Libyan National Army began an assault against Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia. Haftar declared the offensive "Operation Dignity."
The group made a bombastic start and broadened their offensive so that it was against all Islamist groups operating in Libya. By late May, Haftar and his supporters had captured the Islamist-dominated parliament in Tripoli, the General National Congress, and announced it would be dissolved. They gained the support of the Qaqa and Sawaiq militias in Tripoli and saw marches of support in a number of Libyan cities.
Haftar's offensive ultimately stalled, however, in part due to suspicions about his political ambitions and unconfirmed links to the CIA, as well as his aggressive stance against even moderate Islamist groups. His relationship to the government in Tobruk is ambiguous.
After Islamists militias were hit by airstrikes during a battle for control of an airport in Tripoli at the weekend, Haftar's forces initially claimed responsibility for the strikes. However, as the New York Times notes, these were thought to be outside his groups' capabilities.
The Islamist militias that Haftar is fighting are a diverse grouping. Many have banded together into one loose alliance, known as the Dawn of Libya, which this weekend was able to seize the airport and other parts of Tripoli despite being hit by airstrikes. The group is said to be made up of a variety of Islamist militias, including the February 17th Martyrs Brigade, described by the BBC as the "biggest and best armed militia in eastern Libya."
However, the Dawn of Libya grouping recently denied any link to Ansar al-Sharia, the notorious Salafist militia first targeted by Haftar. Ansar al-Sharia has become one of the most notorious Islamist groups operating in Libya after the civil war that ousted Qaddafi, in part due to its extremist rhetoric but also due to its alleged involvement on the 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi (for which the U.S. designated Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist organization). However, it had also gained support among many Libyans for its emphasis on charity and the services it provided locals, the BBC reports.
Ansar al-Sharia has distanced itself from more moderate Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, who have publicly remained neutral and had participated in Libya's democratic process. “We will not accept the project of democracy, secular parties, nor the parties that falsely claim the Islamic cause,” a statement from the group, reported in the Times, reads. “They do not represent us.”
Extremist Islamist groups are able to operate freely and with impunity in some parts of the country: Just recently one militia, the Shura Council of Islamic Youth, carried out a very public execution in the eastern city of Darna.
The city militias
Recall the bloody, dramatic events of Libya's 2011 rebellion against Gaddafi and you may remember the names of many cities: Benghazi, the eastern rebel stronghold; Zintan, the redoubt in the mountains; Misurata, the port city that fought the government grimly on its own; Tripoli, the coastal capital that eventually fell. Disparate fighting units formed in cities and among various tribes and banded together in a patchwork alliance that ousted the regime with the aid of a NATO bombing campaign.
But in the aftermath of their victory, the bonds frayed and the alliance fell apart. Gaddafi's quixotic dictatorship did little to build strong national institutions and, in the vacuum that followed its toppling, rival militias took up residence in neighborhoods and public institutions in Tripoli. The divisions made meaningful governance difficult, if not impossible.
The militias' considerable strength of arms in a country flush with weaponry made them automatic power brokers. Gunfights and skirmishes became commonplace; last November, Misurata militia even opened fire on hundreds of protesters in Tripoli who had been demonstrating against their presence in the capital.
Around Tripoli, the main rivalry is between the Zintan and Misurata militias -- two brigades that were instrumental in Gaddafi's downfall but now are key players in the struggle tearing Libya apart. The Misurata fighters have joined with Islamists battling more secular forces, including the Zintan brigades and tribal units once loyal to the Gaddafi state.
The small Gulf state signaled its outsized geopolitical ambition in 2011 when it played an overt role in aiding the rebellion against Gaddafi. Reports at the time indicated Qatari special forces were operating inside Libya and that Qatari fighter jets may have run sorties in the country. Since 2011, the Qataris have emerged as one of the key backers of political Islam in the Middle East and North Africa, supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and a range of Islamist outfits from Tunisia to Syria. As The Washington Post reported Tuesday, Qatar's connections to an al-Qaeda-linked Salafist militia in Syria were instrumental in winning the release of a kidnapped American journalist this weekend.
This conspicuous footprint has made Qatar -- as well as the government of Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a moderate Islamist -- the target of criticism from Arab autocrats and secularists elsewhere. Journalists working for Qatar's TV network Al Jazeera have been rounded up by Egyptian authorities in the wake of the 2013 overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi, who was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. In June, a spokesman for Haftar, the rogue Libyan general, warned all Qatari and Turkish nationals to leave the country and accused both countries of backing terrorism.
On Monday, U.S. officials speaking on condition of anonymity said that Egypt had been involved in two airstrikes on Islamist forces in Libya. Fighter planes from the United Arab Emirates were believed to have used Egyptian bases as a launch pad for the attacks (Washington was not informed of the raids and Egypt has officially denied military operations in Libya).
If true, this intervention would appear to be driven by a broader policy against Islamist movements led by President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. The former military leader came to power just months ago after President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood-backed government were ousted by his military last year. Since coming to power Sisi has banned the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and put many of its leaders in jail.
Sisi's role as a figurehead of the regional anti-Islamist movement can be seen in Haftar, who has taken it upon himself to lead the Libyan battle against political Islam. Writing in The Post's Monkey Cage Blog, Frederic Wehrey of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace noted that Haftar appeared to be "appropriating the tone and language" of the Egyptian president.
The United Arab Emirates
While airstrikes were believed to have been conducted from Egypt, U.S. officials say that the planes flown had come from the UAE, the small country that sits on the Persian Gulf, more than 2,500 miles from Tripoli. The country's air force is well-regarded and helped in the fight against Qaddafi's government during the 2011 civil war.
The UAE is a military ally for the United States and a militia commander told The Washington Post that whoever launched the airstrikes had used munitions manufactured by the United States. “The bombs were American-made, and as far as our information goes regarding that ammunition, it is only used by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel in the Middle East," Abubaker al-Huta, a militia commander, said.
UAE's ruling monarchies have generally let their larger neighbor Saudi Arabia take the lead in foreign policy, but any direct intervention in Libya may be a signal of increasing concern about role of Islamist movements in the country. AFP reports that representatives for the UAE said they had "no reaction" to reports of their involvement in the airstrikes.
Egypt and the UAE may have taken the lead this week in striking against Islamist targets in Libya, but behind the scenes, the Saudis are playing a concerted role. The kingdom looked on with horror at the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings, as a series of Arab autocrats backed by Riyadh were replaced by chaotic, fledgling democracies that reshaped the geopolitical map of the Middle East. Now, it's striking back with the UAE, a perennial sidekick, in tow alongside Sissi's Egypt, to which it has already extended billions of dollars in aid.
As part of its larger regional chess match with Iran, a Shiite theocracy, the Saudis have at various times enabled the rise of Sunni militancy in corners of the Middle East. The country remains the source of support for some of the most virulent strains of Salafism in the Muslim world. Meanwhile, it has helped suppress democratic uprisings it distrusts, such as the protests in neighboring Bahrain which were put down in part with the help of a Saudi military intervention.
Moreover, Saudi ties with the United States, a longstanding ally, have deteriorated over disagreements about the region's democracy uprisings as well as U.S. attempts to find rapprochement with Tehran. There are even signs of a growing axis between the Saudis, Sissi's Egypt and the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- political maneuvering which all casts a shadow on the turmoil in Libya.