Libya is stuck in a grave political stalemate that threatens the eruption of a new civil war that neither Libya nor its neighbors in North Africa and the Mediterranean can afford as a result of its dire consequences on regional security. The latest episode of street fighting between the Tripoli-based militias last week is a resounding alarm on the potential manifestation of this dreadful scenario, if it is not promptly pre-empted by the international community and regional actors with interests in Libyan affairs.
The Libyan Ministry of Health recorded a death toll of 32 souls and 159 injuries, including innocent civilians, out of the fierce battle that erupted between the local militias in Tripoli on August 27th. Civilian properties, residential homes, and trade shops have been destroyed, while the governmental security forces rescued and evacuated 64 families from the populous neighborhoods where the militias fought. All of this damage was the direct outcome of a relatively short exchange of fire between two informal armed groups that lasted for only a few hours.
The amount of the damage compared to the time length of the battle and the random structure of the battling groups are a worrying indication of the heaviness of the arms they possess and the size of the funding that they enjoy.
The foreign and home-grown militias and mercenaries are arguably the biggest beneficiary from the current tug of war between the two parallel governments of Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh and Fathi Bashagha. Each of them has been showering the informal armed groups with money and political promises to gain their loyalty.
The latest militia clash is the deadliest since the brief outbreak in Tripoli on July 22nd, which killed 13 people and injured 27. The rounds of deadly friction between militiamen in and around the capital city of Tripoli have not stopped since May, as Fathi Bashagha and Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh have been mobilizing local armed groups against each other, in order to contest the legitimacy of their parallel governments.
Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh leads the Government of National Unity (GNU) from Tripoli since March 2021. GNU is an interim government elected in a UN-supervised process by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF). GNU’s main mission was to reconcile eastern and western rivals, unite the armed forces held by both sides, and hold presidential and parliamentary elections before a deadline that already expired in June 2022.
When GNU failed to hold the presidential elections in December of last year due to what the electoral commission described at the time as “force majeure,” the Tobruk-based parliament hired Bashagha on the top of a new parallel government. The parliament is led by Aguila Saleh, a close ally to Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the armed group known as the “Libyan National Army” (LNA). Dbeibeh, who was shocked by the move of his political opponents in eastern Libya, refused to cede power and insisted that his government will not leave Tripoli until presidential and parliamentary elections are held.
The United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) agreed with Dbeibeh’s stance, but immediately proceeded to work with the conflicting political elite in Tripoli, Tobruk, and Benghazi on creating a legal framework that allows holding the election under the new status quo. UNSMIL and most international observers agree that holding elections in the nearest time possible is the only way to get Libya out of the rut. However, no tangible progress was achieved as a result of UNSMIL efforts, up until this day. That made the hope for proceeding with the political solution diminish, and the power of the militias expand.
It is not the first time to see two parallel governments competing over legitimacy in Libya. This happened at least twice since the fall of Gaddafi, over one decade ago. However, this time, the competing heads of the two parallel governments are equally powerful, in terms of political power, financial means, and popularity. Each of Dbeibeh and Bashagha has a solid base of popular support that extends all over Libya, strong foreign backers, and, most importantly, tough militias to protect him.
Both of the two powerful politicians promised at the beginning of their conflict in March not to use violence against each other, and to avoid the bloodshed of innocent Libyan citizens. But it did not take very long for them to change their minds.
For two months after his appointment, Bashagha and the parliament tried to force Dbeibeh to cede power by applying different diplomatic and economic pressures that almost paralyzed his government. The latest was a wave of riots that kept gas and oil production idle for weeks, in order to suffocate one of the main veins of income that Dbeibeh’s GNU relays on. To the disappointment of the eastern adversaries, Dbeibeh’s own wealth and experience as a businessman bailed him out of this crisis.
In the meantime, Bashagha realized that his parallel government will not gain full legitimacy, either in the eyes of the Libyan people or the foreign observers, until he rules from inside Tripoli. As the political pressures failed to oust Dbeibeh from the capital city, Bashagha resorted to the option of recruiting militia, in order to help him penetrate into Tripoli in the same way Fayez Sarraj did in 2016.
Sarraj, who led the former interim Government of National Accord (GNA), had been locked out of Tripoli by a parallel government supported by Benghazi’s Khalifa Haftar for months after being appointed through a UN process. Only when powerful politicians and businessmen in his cabinet were able to align some of the Tripoli-based militia to their side, he was finally able to enter Tripoli. Eventually, Sarraj entered Tripoli on a boat sailing from Tunisia, under the protection of militia. The militia also continued to protect the GNA against assaults by Haftar’s LNA until 2019 when the GNA sought the help of Turkey to deter the LNA advances towards Tripoli.
Fathi Bashagha served as the Interior Minister in Sarraj’s GNA, and thus he already had strong links with most of the militia inside Tripoli. In addition, he has a strong command over the armed groups in Misrata. In that sense, it was easy for Bashagha to launch offensive operations on the GNU, either from inside or outside Tripoli. Nonetheless, all Bashagha’s attempts to enter Tripoli by force have so far failed. That is mainly because the urban terrain and the defensive and offensive positions of the warring parties on the military strategy board work perfectly in favor of Dbeibeh.
What is the situation now?
The latest deadly clashes, in Tripoli, ended with the victory of Dbeibeh’s forces and the withdrawal of Bashagha’s fighters, mainly because of Dbeibeh’s success in attracting a greater number of militiamen to his side. In the past two months, Dbeibeh succeeded in stripping Bashagha of most of his supporters, starting from the Tripoli-based militiamen up to his allied politicians in the eastern territories. Dbeibeh invested tens of billions of dollars in purchasing the loyalty of the militia affiliated to Bashagha in Tripoli, as well as enhancing the military capabilities of the armed brigades that work under the command of his government.
In addition to the growing support of local militias for Dbeibeh, he also enjoys the support of the Turkish troops and affiliated mercenaries, who are working from inside Tripoli alongside the national armed forces since 2019. The Turkish military provides the armed forces affiliated to GNU with training and equipment, in addition to sensitive intelligence that helped them predict and obstruct the latest attacks on Tripoli.
On the flip side, Bashagha has not only lost some of his militias to Dbeibeh, but it seems that the eastern politicians have already started to give up on him. That was highlighted by Haftar’s LNA washing their hands from the ongoing struggle over power in Tripoli, despite their initial support of Bashagha against Dbeibeh.
“We do not provide any support for Fathi Bashagha or any other person, in the ongoing competition over power in Tripoli. Both competitors have their own armed groups on the ground there, to fight for them … Whoever is eventually entrenched in the capital city will be the representative of the Libyan government. We can only respect the will of the Libyan people, in that regard,” said the spokesperson of Haftar’s LNA in an interview televised only two days before the eruption of fighting between the militias in Tripoli on August 27th, which ended with the withdrawal of the Bashagha militia and Dbeibeh announcing himself as the victor.
The change in LNA position towards Bashagha is perceived as a response to Dbeibeh’s concession to some of Haftar’s demands to share power and state revenues. For example, Dbeibeh recently decided that the GNU will pay the salaries of the LNA troops. He also appointed one of the Haftar loyalists as the president of the oil production facility, which represents the largest source of income to the Libyan state.
What is next?
It seems that the eastern politicians are now more inclined to make a deal with Dbeibeh, rather than continuing to support Bashagha. In the end, what concerns the political elite in Libya, either from the west or the east, is to remain in power for as long as they can. If Dbeibeh can offer them guarantees to keep them in power, even after the elections are convened, then most probably they will not mind working with him, rather than against him. If that scenario unfolds as predicted, we may see rounds of negotiations between Dbeibeh, the parliament, and the state council in the coming weeks.
On another level, some Libyan politicians and thinkers are calling for forming a third interim government by a new person from outside the existing political elite. Some others are calling upon the military committee (5+5) to take the leadership of the country until the sought-after elections are held. However, none of these propositions is realistic enough to be considered for implementation. Installing a third interim government is merely a reinvention of the same barren system that has been keeping Libya stuck in deadly conflicts for years. Likewise, the military committee (5+5), which can hardly reach a consensus on their agendas which are limited in scope, stands a minimal chance to succeed in running state affairs and organizing elections.
Nevertheless, it would be unrealistic to expect that Bashagha may not take another shot at entering Tripoli by the help of militia. He has already been mobilizing militias at the southern and western gates of Tripoli for over a month. He may even try to enter Tripoli via the sea or the coastal road in the north, but for this to happen he should re-earn the support of LNA. If this scenario eventually happens, the battle will be even more brutal than the ones we saw in the past few months. This situation may easily ignite another civil war that will eat up the remainders of Libya and expose the entire region to huge security and economic risks.
The international community and regional actors – except for Turkey – appear to be undisturbed, or at least unwilling to engage themselves in the security standoff inside Libya, this time. The economic burdens of the ongoing war in Eastern Europe could somehow explain this state of global indifference towards the escalating crisis in Libya. Yet, it also reveals a state of confusion that the policy makers in concerned countries and international bodies are having towards the masterminds of both sides of the chronic Libyan crisis. Due to the growing political power of the local militias, even over the politicians who pay them, it has become too costly for interested foreign actors to support one side of the Libyan conflict against the other.
* Dalia Ziada is an Egyptian author and Director of the Liberal Democracy Institute. Her work covers military affairs, political Islamism, and geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa. Tweets at @daliaziada.