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Cairo ( Associated Press) — For many Libyans, the clashes that raged in Tripoli’s capital last month were all too familiar – street fighting, gunshots and a deja vu of people buried inside their homes. A video circulated online that day, showing a man shouting from a mosque’s loudspeaker, “That’s it, we need our younger generation!”
The fighting underscored the fragility of Libya’s relative peace that has lasted more than a year but also seemed like history was repeating itself. Now, observers say the momentum to reconnect the country has been lost and its future looks bleak.
Once again, two competing governments are vying for control in Libya, which has already been plagued by civil war for more than a decade. Clashes broke out in the capital after one of Libya’s two prime ministers challenged the other by moving to his rival’s seat, Tripoli.
Libya has been divided over the years between rival administrations in the east and west, each backed by rogue militias and foreign governments. The Mediterranean nation has been in a state of turmoil since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that later killed longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi.
But in the last two years a plan had emerged which was to take the country on the path of elections. The UN brokerage process saw the Libyans set up an interim government in early 2021 for elections to be held late last year.
That government, led by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dabiba, briefly integrated the political factions under heavy international pressure. But the vote never happened, and since then, the plan was busted and the country plunged into trouble.
Lawmakers in Libya’s east-based parliament, headed by influential speaker Aguila Saleh, argued that Dabiba’s mandate ended when the interim government failed to hold elections.
He went ahead and elected Fati Bashagha, a powerful former interior minister from the western city of Misrata, as the new prime minister. His position was supported by the powerful commander Khalifa Hifter, whose forces controlled much of the east and much of the south of the country, including major oil facilities.
Dabibah has refused to step down, and allied groups in western Libya have strongly opposed Hiftar. They say that Dabibah, who is also from Misrata and has links with its powerful militia, is working towards holding the election.
Analysts are skeptical.
Libyan expert Claudia Ghazzini of the International Crisis Group described the Bashaga-Dabibah rivalry as “a tussle over legitimacy”, with “both governments claiming they are legitimate.”
“I don’t think they will be able to hold elections this year,” she said, and also expressed doubts that UN efforts to get Libyan parties to reach a constitutional consensus on the elections would make any progress.
The power struggle came to a head on 17 May, when Bashagha entered Tripoli and attempted to establish his government there. He was aided by the powerful Nawasi Brigade militia led by Mustafa Qaddoor, the deputy chief of Libya’s intelligence agency.
But Bashagha faced stiff resistance from militias loyal to Dabiba, leading to hours of conflict that rocked the city until Bashagha withdrew and established his government headquarters in the coastal city of Sirte a day later, which was halfway between Libya’s power centers in the east and west. ,
The withdrawal encouraged Dabeba, who promptly dismissed Kadduar and another military officer, Osama Zuweli, who was the head of the military intelligence agency. Qaddoor’s dismissal was later overturned by the Presidential Council – a clear rift within Dabeba’s camp.
According to an official close to Dabibah, the Tripoli-based prime minister is convinced that Bashagha could not enter the Libyan capital without “approval or coordination” with Zuweli and Qaddur, a powerful figure in the western city of Xintan.
The official said Juweli’s forces have deployed checkpoints and containment zones near Gharan, a town south of Tripoli from where Bashagha’s convoy was heading towards the capital. The officer spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss the intelligence details.
Tension persists in Tripoli even after the withdrawal of Bashagha.
Some, such as Libyan researcher Jalal Harchaoui, believe that Bashaga could take another step on Tripoli – or at least attempt to garner more support in the region.
“Given the scars that are now out in the open, such a scenario” is entirely possible, he said.
Meanwhile, Libya’s prized light crude is again being used as a tool in the power struggle. Tribal leaders have shut down vital oil facilities, including the country’s largest oil field in the south, controlled by fighters loyal to Hiftar, who backs Bashagha.
The oil blockade – which caused skyrocketing oil prices due to the war in Ukraine – was likely to deprive Debaba’s government of funding and empower its rival. Bashagha and Saleh have said the facilities will be reopened on the condition that oil revenues remain temporarily stable until rival factions agree on a mechanism to distribute oil funds.
The war in Ukraine has rattled the international community but its ripples have been felt in Libya, where Russia has long played a major role.
Russia has recognized Bashagha’s government, which Ghazzini of the International Crisis Group says makes it difficult for Western countries to do the same – so as not to be seen as on the same side as Russia.
For ordinary Libyans, last month’s deadly violence – one person died in fighting – is a reminder of how fragile relative peace was.
“Anarchy and conflict are the basis of their nurturing,” said Mohamed Abu Salim in his 30s and a Tripoli civil servant, referring to rival factions in Libya.
“If you really believe that those people will allow free and fair elections, you are under delusions.”