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Why Libya’s political chaos looks set to deepen

Street protests, failed political talks, the rising cost of living, two rival administrations, international passiveness, and more. This has been Libya’s reality over the past few months.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Libya could have become one of the countries to help alleviate global deficiencies following Moscow’s energy cuts.

Instead, instability has prevented Libya from taking advantage of this situation, plunging the country into crisis.

Since the designation of Fathi Bashagha as prime minister in February by the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), and the failure of talks in both Cairo and Geneva on constitutional arrangements for elections, there has been widespread political uncertainty.

This has been accompanied by worsening economic conditions following the closure of oil terminals and main roads, and the increasing risk of military confrontation.

Furthermore, this week Bashagha announced that he will once again enter Tripoli, the internationally recognised government’s stronghold, in the “coming days” to take office in the capital.

When he arrived in Tripoli in May this year and attempted to take up his post, it sparked clashes between armed forces supporting him and those loyal to Abdulhamid Dbeibah.

Dbeibah came to power in 2020 following a ceasefire that ended the year-long battle to seize Tripoli by Libyan National Army (LNA) leader Khalifa Haftar.

His transitional government, backed by the UN, had a mandate to hold elections last December but they have not taken place due to internal divisions.

Dbeibah has made it clear that he will only hand over power to an elected authority, while Bashagha insists his government is “illegitimate”.

Libyans have grown increasingly frustrated with these political conflicts and are demanding better living conditions. Their leaders, meanwhile, seem more focused on their own personal agendas.

This anger boiled over in early July as the House of Representatives in Tobruk was set on fire by protesters who descended on the city to denounce rising living costs and armed militias.

There have been protests across other Libyan cities as well.

What’s driving the protests?

“The protests are borne of a combination of causes, not just one cause,” Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher specialising in Libya, told The New Arab.

“The demonstrators are mostly Libyans aged 18 to 22 protesting against long electricity cuts amid a harsher-than-usual heatwave, soaring food prices, frequent delays in the payment of salaries, the absence of elections, and, last but not least, all of the post-2011 Libyan elites’ chronic negligence and cynical selfishness,” he added.

Sami Hamdi, the editor-in-chief of The National Interest, a global risk and intelligence company, told TNA that “Libyans are tired of the conflict, and want a solution to their everyday crises”.

Meanwhile, “power outages and long queues for fuel have been plaguing the country for some time and have been exacerbated by the oil blockade implemented by Bashagha’s allies,” he added.

As many expect living conditions in Libya to worsen significantly, Harchaoui argues that one of the factors that could exacerbate the crisis further is the failure of the Libyan banking system’s reunification process.

“Concretely, this will weaken the dinar, adding further inflation on top of the already-alarming international food crisis, which is expected to worsen this autumn. But as long as social anger remains unorganised politically like it is now, the elite class will stick stubbornly to its bad habits,” he said.

According to Hamdi, Libyans do not appear to be at a stage in which they could launch a “new revolution”. At the same time, armed militias are rampant across the country and have already shown a propensity to crush dissent.

“Polarisation is also entrenched within society, making it difficult to establish cohesion across the country regarding protests,” he said.

“There also does not appear to be a clear alternative to fill any potential political vacuum. Therefore, although these protests are significant, they are unlikely to alter the current course”.

So, what awaits Libya?

Since both sides have been vying for control over the greater Tripoli area, particularly in their respective territories, “a big-armed clash will be hard to avoid this summer,” Harchaoui says.

“Bashagha has said clearly that he will move into the greater Tripoli area within days. One must bear in mind that several armed actors indigenous to north-western Libya are deeply pro-Bashagha and anti-Dbeibah”.

According to Harchaoui, most of the strongest armed groups in Sabratha, Zawiyah, Ajeelat, Jumail, Warshefana, and Zintan, are anti-Dbeibah.

Moreover, the Nawassi Brigade inside Tripoli is clearly anti-Dbeibah too, which makes Bashagha believe that he can be physically present in Tripoli and become more assertive there to squeeze Dbeibah.

“On the other hand, the Dbeibah camp is determined to respond to any attempt by Bashagha to grab vital territory. This configuration suggests we may be heading towards a violent collision. As a result, Tripoli, which is already divided now, stands to become even more fractured,” Harchaoui said.

The analyst also believes that “corollary conflicts could erupt in other areas of Libya, such as Sirte, Jufrah, Shwayref, and parts of the Fezzan”, where the armed coalition led by Bashagha’s ally, warlord Haftar, is slowly taking on a more belligerent posture.

On the other hand, Turkey’s presence in Tripoli creates a military balance that has so far tempered any escalation.

“Tripoli and the internationally recognised government remain firmly guarded by Turkey, forcing Haftar and his allies to hesitate over a military offensive and forcing Bashagha to pursue diplomatic alternatives, including trying to convince Turkey to abandon the defence of Tripoli and Dbeibah’s government,” Hamdi said.

Solutions to the crisis

Significant actors in Libya, as well as international bodies, have been calling for elections at the earliest opportunity, but Hamdi notes that the results of the disputed 2014 elections nearly opened the door to civil war.

“The reality is that although elections sound plausible as a solution, they are meaningless without an enforcement mechanism that can force militias to recognise the results,” he said.

“This is why there needs to be a national reconciliation process, but that remains exceptionally difficult due to the war crimes committed by factions on all sides”.

Harchaoui, while shedding light on the lack of a clear US stance in Libya, said Washington should seriously revise its current Libya policy, which is based on the “erroneous belief” that fairly sharing oil wealth will incentivise armed actors to abandon their maximalist positions.

“Washington indeed is betting on what some call the Financial Mechanism as a way to de-escalate the situation. But this illusion in itself is dangerous. The Financial Mechanism, which still hasn’t been implemented, will not be accepted by Libyans.”

Given the opacity of Libya’s current financial system, Harchaoui argues that small committees somewhere in Tunis or Tripoli will not be able to ensure that public funds are not used for armed groups.

“That kind of transparency will remain out of reach for several years, at least,” he said.

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