Who’s Running This Joint, Anyway?

Two governments are competing to rule Libya -- but it may be the militias that wield the real power.

Mohammed Elshaiky/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
Mohammed Elshaiky/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

TRIPOLI, Libya — In a luxury hotel on Tripoli’s seafront, the man who claims to be running a government holds court. Omar al-Hasi, a university lecturer from the city of Benghazi, tried and failed this year to become Libya’s prime minister. Today he leads what he calls a "national salvation government" in opposition to that of Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, who is currently based in eastern Libya. "We have won," he says. "Most of Libya is under our control."

For most ordinary Libyans, however, who exactly is in charge of their country remains an open question. Thinni is supported by an internationally recognized parliament, but his government’s writ extends little beyond its sparsely attended sessions in the small coastal town of Tobruk near the border with Egypt. Hasi was appointed by a rump of the new parliament’s unpopular predecessor, the Islamist-dominated General National Congress, which revived itself in Tripoli in the wake of a fierce weeks-long militia battle that tipped the balance of power to where it matters: the capital, home to ministries and state institutions like the national oil corporation.

When Hasi says "we," he means the thuwar, or "revolutionaries" — a word he uses liberally in conversation and in the speeches he has delivered to crowds in Tripoli’s Martyrs’ Square. But thuwar is a bitterly contested word three years after the uprising that dislodged Muammar al-Qaddafi. The militias that fought each other for control of Tripoli this summer were all on the same side in 2011. What divides them now is a scramble for power and resources, underpinned by rivalry between towns and tribes. Appeals to revolutionary sentiment may help rally Hasi’s base, but they leave a great many Libyans cold.

Hasi’s critics accuse him of overseeing what they say amounts to a coup against the parliament elected in June, in which Islamists are a minority. Ironically, his supporters, including some Islamists, draw on the international community’s accommodation of current Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi after the military overthrow of Egypt’s elected government to argue that Hasi’s administration should be recognized. "This is a correction of the revolution," contends Hasi. "Our revolution had fallen into a trap."

Similar rhetoric can be heard in the crowded lobby of the Bab al-Bahr Hotel, where a parade of politicians, tycoons, tribal elders, and militiamen awaits meetings with Hasi. One Tripoli-based businessman even claims that the atmosphere reminds him of the heady days of 2011. They also speak dismissively of the parliament in Tobruk: The body was voted in by just over 600,000 Libyans, they point out, arguing it can no longer claim to be representative when only about 110 of the 188 elected regularly turn up for sittings.

"They have lost the trust of the people," says Hanan Shallouf, a parliamentarian from the prosperous port city of Misrata, whose militias form the backbone of the new political order in Tripoli. Shallouf, an academic who polled the highest nationwide in the June election, is one of a group of members boycotting the assembly because they say a last-minute decision to relocate it to Tobruk was politically motivated and violated procedure. She also accuses those meeting in Tobruk of deepening polarization by branding the Misrata-led militia alliance that is now the dominant power in Tripoli as "terrorist," and calling for foreign intervention against them.

In August, that coalition, which named itself Fajr Libya ("Libyan Dawn"), wrested control of Tripoli’s international airport from militias from the conservative mountain town of Zintan, which have held it since 2011. The latter are broadly aligned with anti-Islamist political and military currents — including Khalifa Haftar, a former general who declared war on all Islamists in May, but whose operation has since stalled. The Zintan-allied camp also has support from regional actors: U.S. officials have said that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt carried out air raids against Libyan Dawn locations during the fighting for control of the airport. Banners in Tripoli alleging foreign conspiracies against Libya feature the UAE’s rulers, along with Sisi — who is portrayed as a vampire.

In addition to the main Misrata forces, Libyan Dawn contains dozens of militias — both Islamist and non-Islamist — from Tripoli and several other western towns, as well as Amazigh (or Berber) fighters. The Misratans and the Amazigh in particular bridle at those who seek to cast Libyan Dawn as an Islamist takeover, a narrative pushed by their routed opponents. Part of this narrative are the whispering campaigns that allege Hasi is a former member of the defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a militant group that posed the most serious threat to Qaddafi in the 1990s. Hasi says he once helped an injured LIFG figure escape from a hospital in Benghazi — a famous episode in the city — but was never a member. He says he does not even self-describe as Islamist.

"Most of Dawn is not Islamist," says one Amazigh fighter. "We came together for a common purpose: limiting Zintan’s influence in western Libya."

That diversity could well prove Libyan Dawn’s undoing, now that the goal that united its members — driving Zintan-linked militias from Tripoli — has been achieved. Misratan commanders, for their part, insist they can easily deal with hard-line Islamists within the coalition. "They know we are stronger than them and greater in number," says one key militia figure from Misrata. "We’re not going to accept a religious dictatorship any more than we accepted Qaddafi."

The militias’ fighting this summer left Tripoli scarred: The international airport is a burned-out shell, and scores of homes lie ruined in the worst-hit neighborhoods. But elsewhere in the capital, life goes on — families flock to the beach or busy cafes, and traffic snarls in the usual gridlock. There is little overt militia presence, apart from outside certain ministries and the area around the destroyed airport.

The Dawn camp knows it needs to get the people on its side. Its effort is hindered, however, by lingering memories of the killing of more than 40 demonstrators by Misratan militiamen last year. "All these militias are as bad as the other, no matter who they claim to represent," says one shop owner who shuttered his business for weeks in July and August. "Most Libyans want to see the end of all of them."

The tens of thousands of Tripoli residents who fled the violence are tentatively returning home, but kidnappings and threats carried out by each side have left many residents fearful. Misrata military council head Ibrahim bin Rajab, who lost his two sons in one of the airstrikes against Libyan Dawn’s bases, acknowledges revenge attacks have taken place. "This is wrong," he says. "I told a gathering of our men that no one should take retribution."

The targeting of civil society figures has also forced several into silence or exile. "On the surface it seems like a normal life, but the wounds are hidden underneath," says one prominent activist who has received threats. "The militias have destroyed the civil tissue between people. Nobody talks freely in Tripoli any longer."

The Libyan Dawn camp is working hard to try to improve its image. Power cuts that had plagued Tripoli have all but disappeared. It even issued a statement urging foreign diplomats and expatriate workers who evacuated at the height of the fighting to return, claiming Tripoli is now secure. But amid talk of a possible counterattack by the Zintani militias and their allies, many remain unconvinced. 

A U.N.-fostered dialogue began last week between parliamentarians boycotting and attending sessions in Tobruk, but many Libyans say such initiatives are merely window dressing if the deeper militia problem is not addressed. As the Tripoli versus Tobruk debacle continues, institutions like the Central Bank, which is based in the capital, are being pulled into the fray: Its governor was recently dismissed by the parliament in Tobruk; he is standing down while taking legal action against the move. In the meantime, Hasi is installing more appointees in ministries in Tripoli and claiming that the international community will have no choice but to recognize his administration sooner rather than later.

The power struggle threatening to tear Libya apart is not just playing out among politicians and militiamen but also within families, with many divided on what they consider to be the legitimate authorities. Over a dinner at an upscale Lebanese restaurant in Tripoli, two brothers who live in opposite ends of the country illustrate the growing polarization.

"The parliament in Tobruk has the legitimacy because it was elected," says Salah, a businessman who lives in Tripoli.

His Benghazi-based brother, Mohammed, an administrator, rolls his eyes in response. "Legitimacy is also earned, and they have lost it all due to their provocative decisions," he counters.

And on they argue, disagreeing on almost everything happening in Libya today. "That’s the problem with us Libyans," sighs Salah. "It seems more divides us than unites us these days."

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