Implications of Libyan Militias’ Expanding Power
Libya is stuck at 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 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 not properly pre-empted by the international community and regional actors with interest in the Libyan affair.
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 government security forces rescued and evacuated 64 families in the populous neighborhoods where the militias fought.
All these damages are the direct outcome of a relatively short exchange of fire between two informal armed groups, that lasted for only a few hours. The size of damage compared to the time length of the battle and the random silhouette of the battling groups is a worrying indication of the heaviness of the arms they possess and the size of the funding that they enjoy.
Tug of War
The foreign and home-grown militias and mercenaries are, arguably, the biggest beneficiary of 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 slayed 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, to debate 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 an 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 has 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 top of a new parallel government. The parliament is led by Aguila Saleh, a close ally of Warlord Khalifa Haftar, the commander of the armed forces known as the “Libyan National Army (LNA)” in Benghazi. 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, at the nearest time possible, is the only way to get Libya out of this rut. However, no tangible progress has been achieved from UNSMIL efforts, up to 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.
Each of the two powerful politicians promised, at the beginning of their conflict in March, not to use violence against each other, to avoid the bloodshed of innocent Libyan citizens. But it did not take 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 of which was a wave of riot that kept the gas and oil production idle for weeks, suffocating one of the main veins of income that Dbeibeh’s GNU relays on. To the disappointment of the eastern adversaries, Dbeibeh’s 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 opt Dbeibeh out of the capital city, Bashagha resorted to the option of recruiting militia, to help him penetrate Tripoli, the same way Fayez Sarraj did in 2016.
Sarraj, who was appointed by the UN, in 2015, to lead the former interim Government of National Accord (GNA), had been locked out of Tripoli, for months, by a parallel government supported by Haftar. Only when powerful politicians and businessmen in his cabinet were able to align some of the Tripoli-based militia to their side, GNA was finally able to enter Tripoli. Eventually, in early 2016, Sarraj and his cabinet entered Tripoli on a boat sailing from Tunisia, under the protection of militia. The militia, also, continued to protect the GNA against armed assaults by Haftar’s LNA, until, in 2019, the GNA sought the help of Turkey to deter the LNA's advances toward Tripoli.
Fathi Bashagha served as the Interior Minister in Sarraj’s GNA; thus, he already has strong links with most of the militia inside Tripoli. In addition, he has command of armed groups in Misrata. Therefore, it was easy for Bashagha to launch offensive operations on the GNU, either from inside or outside Tripoli. Yet, so far, all of Bashagha’s attempts to enter Tripoli by force have 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 it 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 off most of his supporters, starting from the Tripoli-based militiamen up to his eastern political allies. Dbeibeh, allegedly, 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 militia to 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 with 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 militiamen 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 to 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 armed groups on the ground there to fight for them… Whoever is eventually stationed in the capital city will be the representative of the Libyan government. We can only respect the will of the Libyan people, in this regard;” said the spokesperson of Haftar’s LNA, in a televised interview, only two days before the eruption of the fight between the militias in Tripoli, on August 27th, which ended with the withdrawal of Bashagha militia and Dbeibeh announcing himself the victor.
The change in LNA's 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. Also, he appointed one of Haftar’s loyalists as the president of the national oil production facility, which represents the largest frontier of income for 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 working against him. If that scenario unfolds as predicted, we may see rounds of negotiations between Dbeibeh, the parliament, LNA, and the state council, in the coming weeks.
On another level, some Libyan thinkers are calling for forming a third interim government by a new person from outside the existing political elite. Some others call upon the military committee (5+5) to take the country's leadership until the sought-after elections are held. However, none of these propositions is realistic enough to be considered for application. Installing a third interim government is merely a reinvention of the same barren system that has kept Libya stuck in deadly conflicts for years. Likewise, the military committee (5+5), which can hardly reach a consensus on their limited scope agendas, 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 with the help of the militia. He has already been mobilizing militias at Tripoli's southern and western gates, 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 trust and the support of Haftar and the parliament. If this scenario follows, 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 remainder 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 unwilling to engage themselves in the security standoff inside Libya, this time. The economic burdens of the ongoing war in eastern Europe could, to a great extent, explain this state of global indifference towards the escalating crisis in Libya. Yet, it also reveals a state of confusion that the policymakers in international bodies and concerned countries are having towards the masterminds of both sides of the chronic Libyan crisis. Due to the growing political power of local militia, even over the politicians who pays them, it has become too costly for interested foreign actors to support one side of the Libyan conflict against the other.
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