Libya has two governments and two parliaments, one in Tobruk and the other in Tripoli, the capital. But both are governments in name only, and the resulting power vacuum both reflects, and deepens, Libya’s status as another battlefield for regional powers. Despite Libya’s neighbors declaring in Cairo on Monday, that they refuse to intervene in the troubled country, hours later The New York Times reported that U.S. officials revealed that the mysterious air force that last week bombed militias from Misrata in the remains of Tripoli’s international airport was from the United Arab Emirates, flying from bases in Egypt.
If confirmed, the Times report would underscore the connection between Libya’s increasingly deadly internal unraveling — Libya Body Count reports there were more violent deaths in July than in the previous six months combined — and the regional power struggle that pits old and new autocracies against the forces of political Islam across the Middle East.
While the Islamist forces are accused of receiving Qatari and Turkish support, the Zintan militias are seen by their foes as the chosen allies of the Emiratis. Renegade General Khalifa Haftar, who launched his insurgency in February, adopted a narrative that dovetails neatly with the one used by the Egyptian military in defense of last summer’s coup that overthrew President Mohamed Morsi — armed forces claiming to act in the national interest to oust Islamists, whom they accuse of bringing the country to the brink of disaster.
And in a weak state awash with weapons, the conflict is becoming increasingly deadly because none of the forces in the field has thus far been able to muster the strength to prevail over the others.
The internationally recognized Libyan government is the interim authority operating from Tobruk. It is headed by Abdullah al-Thinni, but has little control over the country or even of the forces involved in the fighting. Its ministries no longer function, although their empty buildings in the capital remain symbolically prized by some of the combatants. Shortly before being bombed by the unidentified jets last week, the Misratan militias claimed to have conquered the Ministry of Interior building.
Not surprisingly, the official parliament’s legitimacy is questioned by some of the warring factions. The most recent election, on June 25, was boycotted by some of Libya’s minorities and was further blighted by poor security, resulting in 12 out of the 200 seats remaining unfilled. Then, 30 legislators boycotted the Council’s meetings in Tobruk, a location that they deemed illegitimate and too close to the areas under Haftar’s control.
Still, the Tobruk-based Council decided to hold direct presidential elections and to suspend the government salaries for all militias that fail to recognize its authority — most militiamen fighting in either camp are paid a government salary as part of the Libyan army, into which they were formally integrated in 2012 by the old parliament. (These forces kept their own chains of command, however, and answer — when they answer at all — only to the local councils of their native cities.)
The Tobruk parliament also proclaimed a cease-fire, branded the militias from Misrata as terrorists and called for international intervention. That decision prompted more local councils to withdraw recognition of the Tobruk parliament’s authority. The Warfalla tribe, Libya’s largest and best-armed, is adamantly opposed to any foreign interference according to a Libyan security official who spoke to Al Jazeera America on condition of anonymity.
On Monday, the Council in Tobruk approved a new chief of staff, Abdul-Razak Naduri, who is very close to Haftar according to independent analysts who spoke on condition of anonymity. That may be a nominal position, however, given the dispersion of security forces in the country.
Not to be outdone, the General National Congress (GNC), the old parliament dissolved in May before the election of the Council of Representatives, was reconvened Monday in Tripoli and elected its own prime minister, Omar al-Hasi, a university professor from Benghazi.
The competing prime ministers and parliaments reinforce competing narratives in the rival armed camps. One side, calling itself “Operation Dignity,” is a loose coalition of defectors from Muammar Gaddafi’s army and militias from Zintan who proclaim their goal as eliminating Islamists — their term for the opposing alliance, Operation Dawn, which includes militias aligned with the original parliament; the extremists of Ansar al-Sharia who reject democracy; and the militias from Misrata. Apart from Ansar al-Sharia, their common goal is not to create an Islamic state. Instead, they see themselves fighting a counterrevolution led by elements of the Gadhafi regime. Widespread nationalist opposition to the international intervention requested by Tobruk has swelled their ranks.
Driven by mutually exclusive narratives and foreign backing, and relatively evenly matched on the battlefield, the militias show little inclination to compromise.
The resulting military escalation has left the capital without gasoline and the whole country without international flights. While last week’s air strikes were not enough to prevent the Misrata militias from capturing Tripoli’s airport on Sunday, it was destroyed by fire Monday.
Libya’s post-Gaddafi unraveling has prompted a mass exodus of refugees, while most international agencies and Western governments have shuttered their embassies. Still, even if Libya no longer commands much attention in Western capitals, the country’s proximity to Europe and U.S. bases in Sicily could still trigger alarms.
Even then, it’s not clear whether the U.S. and Europe hold any cards that can effectively stop the fighting given that it remains highly unlikely that Western powers would intervene directly. On Wednesday the U.N. Security Council will convene to discuss Libya, and could consider proposed asset freezes or travel bans against individual warlords. The warring parties have also been reminded by the European Union of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court over Libya.
Even if they won’t consider military action, the Western powers may pursue a diplomatic intervention with greater urgency, seeking to convince regional powers that an escalation in Libya is in no one’s interest and would disrupt oil markets and benefit transnational extremists like the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. There may also be some hope of persuading more rational elements within the Dignity and Dawn camps that they have more to gain by stepping back from the brink. But those would be long-term projects: Right now, Libya’s fate rests in the hands of armed Libyans and their regional backers, and none of them appears persuaded that they have more to lose than to gain by stepping up the fight.