Since the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi, a power vacuum has led Libya down a path of factionalism and war. Isolated from both Tobruk and Tripoli’s rule, extremists and separatists thrive, leaving the future of Libya hanging in the balance.
A game of political cat and mouse between Libya’s Supreme Court in Tripoli and the government in Tobruk, highlights a widening divide that is threatening to tear the country apart.
With war raging between a myriad of militias, and some extremist groups, the latest political rift has further worrying implications for the country.
Three weeks ago, Libya’s Supreme Court ruled that the country’s legislative elections that were held in June were unconstitutional, and so the House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk has no legal status.
In the eyes of this body, it ultimately means that the government of Abdullah al-Thinni, which was appointed by the assembly, is also illegal.
Libya’s Supreme Court is based in Tripoli, where a rival parliament sits. Due to this, the HoR rubbished the court’s decision claiming it was made under duress.
Armed and opposed
Militia groups allied to the GNC are widely viewed as being Islamist in their outlook and control the titular capital Tripoli along with the majority of the Tripolitania region in western Libya. The HoR had set itself up in Tobruk, in the eastern province of Cyrenaica, due to security concerns, while the al-Thinni government operates from the nearby town of al-Bayda.
A rump parliament set up by the Tripoli-based militias, which was based on the General National Congress (GNC) elections in June 2012 will be most affected by the ruling.
The parliament’s mandate ended last February, so the June election results replace it in theory, but this hasn’t stopped the GNC from running parts of the country with its own government under Omar al-Hassi.
This group controls much of the country’s infrastructure – the ministries, after all, are mainly located in Tripoli – and uses this as leverage in its claims of authority.
Yet the GNC-government lacks the legitimacy of the wider world, which has generally sided with Tobruk in the crisis.
Nor does it control the country’s deposits in the Libyan central bank, nor the great wealth producer for the North African state, the Libya National Oil Company, which is in the hands of Tobruk. So although the GNC controls ministry buildings, it is the oil revenues that make the state function.
Despite mediation from the United Nations, Libya now has two irreconcilable governments.
This bizarre situation just underlines the duality of Libyan politics, and the confrontational methods taken by opposing parties, leaving Libya torn apart.
Since the end of the civil war in October 2011, the post-Gaddafi state has faced an uphill struggle for unity. Two camps that emerged, one allied to a secular view of the country, while its rival would like to see the country follow a more religious path.
These two groups are in competition for the support of the population with the Islamists not attracting the backing they believe they deserve.
Election results have marginalised the more moderate Islamist Muslim Brotherhood contingent, represented by Mohammad Sawan’s Justice and Construction Party.
With parliamentary results not going in the party’s favour, the Justice and Construction Party have challenged recent election results. Backing it up are more extremist fringe groups, such as Ansar al-Shar’ia and the February 17 Brigade. More importantly, it is championed by the powerful Misurata militia coalition which now controls Tripoli.
Although it would be tempting to equate the Tripoli government with Libya’s Islamist factions, doing so would be an oversimplification of a complex situation. In Libya, localism and tribal values are still more powerful denotations of identity than political or religious affiliations.
This is reflected in the opposition to the Misurata militias from some of the tribes in Jabal Nafusi, in Zintan, close to Tripoli. These clans are allied to Libya’s secular parties, and the group has been profoundly disadvantaged by a law that excludes from power those who worked with the Qaddafi regime.
This has robbed the newly democratic state of administrative and professional expertise.
Zintani militias recently lost control of Tripoli airport to Misurata groups, but the fighters are allied to powerful tribal groups, such as the Warshafanna and Warfalla who were sympathetic to the Qaddafi regime and had begun to resent their marginalisation following the Arab Spring.
Death not dialogue
Meanwhile, inter-Islamist confrontations have brought further instability to the country. Libyan Dawn is a largely Misurata-led force, which is supported by moderate Islamist groups and the GNC. In Derna, a coastal city in the east, fighters there became the first group outside Syria and Iraq to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State group (IS, formely known as ISIS).
An armed group that led the Libyan Dignity operation is headed by Khalifa Haftar, who is now back into the fold of the Libyan army. The national army is part of the HoR government, and has become a determined force in eliminating Islamist groups from the Cyrenaica and Tripolitania regions. These forces are said to have had material and moral support from Egypt and the UAE, including air support, which both countries deny. Last week, the airport in Tripoli was bombed with Tobruk claiming responsibility.
Despite the clash between secular and Islamist forces for rule of the country, another possible outcome for Libya could be its division into federal or independent states. For some diehards in Cyrenaica, the dream is of an independent east, not a united country.
Through the Oil Protection Force Cyrenaica separatists control most of the oil fields in the east. In Libya’s southern desert region of Fezzan, Tibu and Touareg militias are rejecting the rule of Tripoli and ignoring the HoR in Tobruk.
In short, Libya appears to be heading into a new civil war – a tragic outcome for those who had high hopes for the country after the 2011 revolution.
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Libyan Express, its editorial board or staff.