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Tripoli clashes: What’s behind Libya’s worst fighting in years?

The last week of August saw another wave of clashes in Libya, the most violent in several years, as PM-designate Fathi Bashagha’s forces attempted to enter the capital Tripoli one more time.

The clashes took place in residential areas, claiming dozens of lives, injuring hundreds, and eventually seeing the retreat of pro-Bashagha forces, giving the PM of the internationally-recognised Government of National Unity (GNU), Abdulhamid Dbeibah, the upper hand against his rival one more time.

A few days before the clashes, warlord Khalifa Haftar’s spokesman, Ahmed Al-Mishmari, had commented on a potential new attempt by pro-Bashagha forces to enter Tripoli, saying they were not a party to the conflict.

The rhetorical shift in his speech also revealed that even on the eastern side of the country the divisions between Aguila Saleh, the speaker of the pro-Haftar House of Representatives (HoR), and Haftar, who fought against the internationally-recognised government together, have widened.

On the one hand, figures like Bashagha, Saleh, Haftar, and Khaled al-Mishri, the chairman of the High Council of State of the GNU, vied for power over claims of legitimacy following the end of Dbeibah’s mandate. However, on the other hand, the mandate of the HoR and High Council of State expired years ago.

Amid the political deadlock and the danger of further military conflict, a third, transitional, mutually agreed government option has been on the table for the past few weeks to organise the electoral process in the country.

Some reports emerged that Saleh, Mishri, and others were trying to reach a consensus under the supervision of foreign countries.

So, what is happening in Libya? Who is with whom? And who are the winners and losers?

In an interview with The New Arab, Sami Hamdi, the editor-in-chief of The National Interest, a global risk and intelligence company, said last week’s clashes revealed two critical dynamics.

“The first is that ‘legitimacy’ derives from who can deploy the most force. The international community, which has entertained Bashagha’s lobbying and representations, appeared to adopt an approach of ‘wait and see’ as the clashes unfolded to see who would win, as opposed to coming out in firm support for Dbeibah and his resistance,” he explained.

According to Hamdi, the second dynamic is the “enduring dominance of Turkey, which has been receiving the Libyan rivals in Istanbul in the aftermath of the clashes to negotiate a truce and political dialogue”.

“The unconfirmed reports that Bayraktar drones had been deployed in favour of Dbeibah is also believed to have helped accelerate the de-escalation,” he added.

In the view of Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya specialist and associate research fellow at the Royal United Institute for Defence and Security Studies, it is Dbeibah who won last week’s battle.

“The murderous clashes of August 26 and 27 in Tripoli revealed that the pro-Dbeibah camp is better organised than the pro-Bashagha camp,” he explained.

Harchaoui believes that in all cases, “the prospect of Dbeibah becoming a more solid, more permanent king of the Libyan capital is higher thanks to his victory against the Bashagha camp on August 27”, and that “it is not a good prospect for Haftar”.

“It would mean, among other things, that Haftar will depend on the goodwill of Dbeibah and his allies when it comes to funding the so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) and its mercenaries, including the approximately 2,000 Russian personnel now in Libya,” Harchaoui added.

Haftar rolling the dice

Based on the statements made by Haftar’s alliance ahead of the clashes, many believe that Bashagha is being used by the warlord as a tool against Dbeibah.

“Haftar’s gamble on Bashagha was, and remains, a win-win situation,” Sami Hamdi told TNA, explaining that, “if Bashagha enters Tripoli, Haftar wins significant influence in the capital; if he fails, Haftar’s own power in the East remains unaffected.”

“The international community will continue to allow him representation based on his de facto control of swathes of territory,” he added.

Anas Gomati, who heads the Libyan think tank Sadeq Institute, agrees that Haftar “doesn’t have allies or friends,” and “is seeking his strategic interests”.

“Haftar suffered a humiliating defeat in 2019 and couldn’t afford another, so he used Bashagha and his allied forces as a cover in an attempt to take Tripoli from within, but it failed. So he will most likely drop Bashagha and seek to negotiate with Dbeibah, but he is now significantly weaker than before,” he explained.

Gomati added that Haftar’s self-styled LNA is “seeking its strategic interest” and will adopt “its position and alliance on whoever is strongest”.

“The LNA uses Bashagha as a tool to mount a power grab on Tripoli or pressure Dbeibah into making a deal with Haftar.”

A third government option?

Holding free and fair elections in Libya has been the most common point of difference between warring parties, dividing Libyan political elites for a while.

None of them have been willing to compromise to make progress when it comes to agreeing on a constitutional basis, perpetuating a process that allows them to stay relevant in the political scene.

Amid a series of clashes and political deadlock, many have started openly entertaining the idea of a common third government option, while maintaining the rhetoric of “organising elections at the earliest occasion”.

According to Harchaoui, the likelihood of establishing a third government is lower after the recent clashes because “Dbeibah is now a more compelling figure” who “enjoys stronger connections with the armed groups in Tripoli”.

“It will be difficult to remove him — unless huge coercive pressure is exerted on him.”

“I think it is less about the idea of a third government and more about individual militias taking advantage of an opportunity to secure military gains that will enable them to exert greater influence over the political process,” says Hamdi, agreeing with Harchaoui’s analysis.

“There is a consensus among Libya’s political actors that elections should be resisted at all costs. Therefore, there is an equal consensus that brute force and de facto realities will dictate the composition of any authority in Libya, and militias in Tripoli (and Haftar in Sirte) are acting accordingly,” Hamdi added.

Gomati also agrees. “The military situation is not ripe for a third government,” he said, adding that, “the balance of power is in Dbeibah’s favour, or more importantly it is anti-Haftar.”

While urging observers “to not take any storytelling about an imminent third government or about early elections at face value,” Harchaoui believes that “Dbeibah is not going to leave the stage next month, or even next quarter”.

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