Tripoli, Libya – Libya has grown increasingly polarised as the country remains gripped by violent clashes between rival armed groups and the country’s fledgling parliament struggles to garner legitimacy.
The Libyan parliament convened for its first official session last Monday in the northeastern city of Tobruk, but 30 elected representatives boycotted the session. “It’s unconstitutional to hold the session in Tobruk,” said Mohamed al-Tharat, a member of the parliament representing the city of Misrata.
Tharat told Al Jazeera that he didn’t attend the meeting because a declaration in Libya’s interim constitution – a set of rules on how, where and when the interim government and parliament will work – states that parliamentary sessions must be held in Benghazi.
Most MPs who boycotted the session hail from Misrata, home to many Islamist factions and their military arm, the Libya Shield, the single largest force in the country. “The session in Tobruk is illegitimate, and we believe some members are being forced to attend,” Tharat added.
The parliament was elected on June 25 and its representatives are now expected to come into their positions during one of the most difficult periods since longtime Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi was removed from power in 2011.
In Tripoli, rival militias have battled for over a month for control of the city’s main airport. The airport road, a motorway linking Tripoli’s international airport to the city, has been a frontline for battles between militias from Zintan and rival Islamist groups from Misrata and Tripoli.
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Hundreds of people have died, while basic services are under severe strain. Meanwhile, in the east and west of the country, fighting has broken out between rival militias, edging closer to the capital.
In the session, parliament members elected Ageela Issa, from the eastern city of al-Baitha, to act as chairman. One of the parliament’s first motions was then to call for a ceasefire and dialogue between the armed factions involved in the fighting.
“The decree [calling for a ceasefire] states that we will request the assistance of the United Nations if the different forces do not comply with the ceasefire,” said Younis Fanoush, an MP from Benghazi who was at the session in Tobruk.
“If the UN cannot offer any support, we will turn our attention to anyone in the international community who can,” Fanoush said. “If dialogue doesn’t work, we will have to request an international force to deal with it, this fighting has to be stopped,” he added, alluding to international military intervention.
But political polarisation has increased as a result of the fighting, and with no single force powerful enough to bring the warring factions together, the parliament’s authority has been put into question, according to Izadeen Ageel, a political analyst in Tripoli.
“They [parliament members] don’t have the force to stop them. Even friendly forces like Zintan won’t take full orders from the parliament if it opposes what they want,” Ageel explained. “It’s up to the [parliament] to do what others couldn’t. If they have the will to stop them they can; they can use consultants from all around the world who can help them fight this.”
The fighting is still going on, as you can hear... The parliament has to make them stop. They won't on their own.
On August 10, the parliament hosted Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni to assess the government’s performance and plans. “The government will give us their assessment of the situation on the ground,” Fanoush said.
On the ground, few took notice of the parliamentary decree, and the fighting has continued unabated. “The fighting is still going on, as you can hear,” said Ahmed al-Alem, a resident of Tripoli. “The parliament has to make them stop. They won’t on their own.”
Meanwhile, protesters have gathered over the past week in different cities and towns across Libya, with some condemning, and others supporting, the parliament in Tobruk. On Friday in Tripoli, both sides – pro- and anti-parliament – fought for the right to demonstrate in the main square in the heart of the city, Martyrs’ Square. Security forces fired warning shots into the air to disperse clashes between the protesters.
Despite this, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) welcomed the convening of the parliament. “This step reflects the genuine will of the Libyan people to see that the democratic process and its outcomes are respected,” a statement from the group read.
UNSMIL also condemned the ongoing violence in Tripoli and Benghazi and reminded all sides to refrain “from endangering [civilian] lives”.
“I think if they do their jobs well, and get rid of the militias, Libya still has a chance in becoming a free democratic country,” said al-Alem in Tripoli.