Conflict In Tripoli As Libya Teeters On The Brink Of War

Violence erupted in Libya’s capital Tripoli on May 17th in a power clash between two rival administrations. The incident was prompted after Fathi Bashagha, who in February 2022 was appointed prime minister by the Libyan House of Representatives, arrived in Tripoli and attempted to install himself and his cabinet. Bashagha was reportedly accompanied both by cabinet members and by militia fighters. In response, other militias, based in Tripoli and aligned with the UN-recognized prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, fought back, leading to clashes throughout Tuesday morning. The violence ended several hours later, when Bashagha withdrew from the capital, having failed to install his government.

Dbeibah accused Bashagha of acting as part of “an outlawed armed group trying to sneak into the capital under darkness”, in a “desperate attempt to spread terror and chaos”. Bashagha, on the other hand, said that Tripoli was a “kidnapped city”, and that he was trying to ensure that “there will be no bloodshed”.

Speaking to Al Jazeera, Tripoli-based academic Yousef Bakhbakhi said that recent events are linked to UN-requested negotiations currently taking place in Egypt, arguing: “Bashagha fears a real possibility that he could be sidelined in any agreement and is therefore eager to impose a de facto reality that scuppers the UN’s efforts to create a new legitimacy and hold elections that would effectively end the legitimacy of the current House of Representatives [that appointed him]”.

Bashagha’s attempt to take over indicates that he still has strong prime ministerial ambitions, but his failure to do so is a sign that he lacks the support and power base to do so. In the context of the negotiations, Bashagha’s withdrawal therefore diminishes his legitimacy and reduces his standing. At the same time, with Dbeibah unable to definitively establish his control over Libya, the country remains deeply divided and the deadlock grows more and more intense. Bashagha’s failure means that he is unlikely to attempt a similar action again in the near future, leaving negotiations the most viable avenue for reconciliation. This reconciliation will most likely be in the form of laying the groundwork for an election soon, although the recent incident shows there is still a long way to go to achieve unity within the country.

Disunity has been a recent theme within Libyan politics, with this crisis threatening to end two years of relative peace after widespread violence first broke out in the form of a civil war over a decade ago. The current leadership crisis started after Dbeibah, appointed in a process led by the UN in 2021, failed to hold elections in 2021. The elections, scheduled for December 2021, fell through due to disputes over the legal framework, along with a lack of consensus over important issues like presidential eligibility. As a result, political divisions have deepened in 2022, in a country with a recent history of conflict and weak governmental institutions. A UN report on Libya showed that, in addition to countless local militia and terrorist groups, there were also three foreign armies and ten foreign mercenary groups operating within the country. With this potential for violence, further political disintegration could well see the proliferation of nationwide conflict once again.

With such high stakes, it is important to emphasize peace talks and support UN negotiation efforts in Egypt. Regardless of intentions, political gambits like those of Bashagha only contribute to further discord between political groups and a strengthening of the battle lines between parties. After years of violence, the Libyan people should have a legal, political, and constitutional arrangement that ends the confusion of multiple governments, restores stability to Libya, and provides a process through which the people can gain authority. Only with joint action between local actors and the international community can meaningful change take place within Libya and peace be restored to a country where it has been hard to come by in recent years.