Ahead of the failed 24 December elections last year, Libya had been seeking to install an elected government.
Even though the vote was delayed on a justifiable basis, the country now faces the risk of two rival governments vying for legitimacy or the possibility of endless armed deadlock.
On the one hand, as per the decisions taken by the UN-sponsored Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF), the government led by Abdulhamid Dbeibah is still legitimate until June.
But on the other, the pro-Haftar side claims that the Dbeibah government’s mandate is no longer valid and is trying to legitimise installing a rival government led by Fathi Bashagha.
Since the announcement of a rival Bashagha government by the pro-Haftar eastern-based parliament, the House of Representatives (HoR), the spectre of military confrontation has come to the fore several times.
The HoR and pro-Haftar Bashagha have tried to enter the capital Tripoli twice to assume power and failed both times, with Dbeibah insisting that he would hand over power only to an elected government.
Bashagha’s failed attempts triggered fire exchanges in the capital last month that left several wounded, leading to fears that more might take place soon.
Following his failed attempt on 17 May to assume power in Tripoli, Bashagha escaped as fighting between armed groups rocked the capital.
Two weeks later, Bashagha, while talking to The Associated Press last Wednesday, said he “has no immediate plans to rule from Tripoli” unless “conditions are a hundred per cent favourable”.
Following his interview with the AP, dozens of armed vehicles started protests around central Tripoli in the Hay Al-Andalus neighbourhood in support of Bashagha, which was considered a radical development.
“The incidents of May 17th have exacerbated the mutual animosity of armed groups native to the greater Tripoli area,” Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher specialising in Libya, told The New Arab.
“Given that those antagonisms are encouraged and fanned by several entities outside of Tripoli, substantial clashes are likely to erupt in and/or around the capital in the coming weeks, if not days,” he added.
However, others are more hopeful that any potential conflict can be contained.
“I think we are not yet close to a return to conflict,” Sami Hamdi, the editor-in-chief of The National Interest, a global risk and intelligence company, told TNA.
“There is still a belief among the parties that the UN-backed negotiations taking place in Cairo can achieve the downfall of the governments of both Dbeibah and Bashagha and create a new government that includes the major influential actors and gives them a renewed legitimacy without having to face elections”.
According to Hamdi, Bashagha understands that provoking any conflict will end his hopes of securing international recognition.
“It is important to stress that Bashagha is no longer in a rush to enter Tripoli. It is now clear that the international community is not entirely opposed to his government and sees a benefit in using the existence of his parallel government as leverage to pressure Dbeibah into taking more serious steps towards elections,” Hamdi told the TNA.
“Bashagha may be harbouring hopes that as long as his government ‘survives’, then it can act as a bridge for him into the new government being brokered in Cairo”.
Others, however, question Bashagha’s motives. “Like every other politician in Libya, Fathi Bashagha is lying here,” Harchaoui said.
“As we speak, the anti-Dbeibah camp, to which Bashagha belongs, is preparing a new assault on the capital, its goal being to overthrow the incumbent prime minister”.
Elections: Time to drop the fairy tales
Commenting on the feasibility of holding elections under such circumstances, both experts told the TNA that it is unlikely, at least in the short term.
“None of Libya’s parties want to hold elections. The preference is for a power-sharing arrangement instead and then an orchestrated election that entrenches such an agreement,” Hamdi says.
“Moreover, neither Dbeibah nor Bashagha have the power, authority, or reach in the country to hold elections. Therefore, the focus will be on merging these governments to create one authority that can exert some influence across the country in a way that facilitates elections,” he added.
Likewise, Harchaoui believes that “at this point, no meaningful actor, whether Libyan or foreign, is genuinely working on organising Libyan elections” within the foreseeable future.
Khalifa Haftar: Pulling the strings
Amidst Libya’s political crisis, warlord and Libyan National Army (LNA) leader Khalifa Haftar remains one of the most powerful actors in the country.
“Within the realm of physical violence, the number of armed vehicles and other military assets mobilised by the Haftar family in Sirte, Jufrah, and the Fezzan has been growing steadily over recent weeks,” Harchaoui says.
Compared to Haftar’s previous assault on Tripoli in 2019, Libya’s fault lines are now vastly different.
“The war of 2019-2020 had resulted from a frontal aggression led (in vain) by Haftar against the entire capital, which then displayed cohesion in the face of a common enemy,” Harchaoui said.
“This time around, the situation is first characterised by intense enmity between militias native to [the region of] Tripolitania. Anti-Dbeibah armed groups within north-western Libya are allied with Haftar in the east. And Fathi Bashagha now works for that particular side of the conflict.”
Moreover, Haftar’s allies are relatively united compared to Tripoli and other western areas.
“His international backers in Abu Dhabi, Cairo, and Paris are firmly behind him while Dbeibah’s allies are mulling how to adapt to new realities. So, Haftar is in a win-win situation,” Hamdi said.
“Either Dbeibah’s government is reshuffled to include his allies who then facilitate his bid (or his preferred candidate) for the presidency, or Bashagha’s government falls, and Dbeibah’s influence remains limited to Tripoli while he dominates the resource-rich East,” Hamdi added.
“In either case, Haftar’s power remains ever-present, dominant, and relevant.”
Ufuk Necat Tasci is a political analyst, journalist, and PhD Candidate in International Relations at Istanbul Medeniyet University. His research focuses on Libya, proxy wars, surrogate warfare, and new forms of conflict.
Follow him on Twitter: @UfukNecat