Renewed clashes between rival armed groups in Tripoli have plunged Libya in yet deeper chaos, casting serious doubt as to whether the war-wracked country is ready to hold planned elections later this year.
On August 27, fierce fighting erupted in the capital’s southern districts after the Seventh Brigade, an armed group based in Tarhouna, 65km southeast of Tripoli, launched a surprise offensive against rival militias.
At least 39 people have been killed so far, including 18 civilians in gun battles and indiscriminate shelling hitting densely populated areas. Hundreds more have been wounded.
A truce was reached on August 28 but clashes resumed shortly after, forcing authorities to close Tripoli’s only functioning airport.
The Seventh Brigade has since assumed control of the airport.
The UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli declared a state of emergency on Sunday, saying in a statement it was necessary to “protect and secure civilians, public and private possessions and vital institutions”.
Divisions along regional, tribal and linguistic lines have complicated the North African country’s transition to democracy since the overthrow of long-standing leader Muammar Gaddafi nearly seven years ago.
Arms groups now clashing in and around the capital played an integral part in the NATO-backed mission to topple Gaddafi.
Successive governments’ failure to integrate these militias into the formal security structure has led to some groups strengthening their position in the capital – and elsewhere – where they control oil terminals, airports, military barracks and other crucial infrastructure.
The existence of two rival legislatures – the internationally recognised GNA and the eastern-based House of Representatives (HOR) – each with its own central bank and national oil company – highlights another challenge in the country’s plight to enact the necessary reforms and, ultimately, hold elections.
The GNA (Libya's internationally recognised government) is a paper government with no influence of events.
In May, Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj of the GNA and General Khalifa Haftar of the self-styled Libyan National Army – who control much of eastern Libya – met in Paris and agreed on a timeline to hold nationwide polls by the end of the year.
With a September 16 deadline to establish a constitutional and legal basis for polls looming, Al Jazeera takes a look at the different groups vying for power and the prospects for an election this year.
Who’s fighting who?
The Seventh Brigade, otherwise known as the Kanyat – named after three brothers who hail from Tarhouna – is the only armed group to control an entire town.
The group’s stated aim in the latest surge of violence is to “cleanse Tripoli of corrupt militias … who use their influence to get bank credits worth millions of dollars while ordinary people sleep outside banks to get a few dinars”.
Joined by fighters from the Misrata and Zintan regions, the group is targeting four armed brigades inside Tripoli which it accuses of usurping power and pursuing its interests at the expense of the Libyan state.
According to Emadeddin Muntasser, a Libyan political analyst and human rights campaigner, the behaviour of armed groups inside the capital – their grip on virtually all economic activity – has prompted the current crisis.
“Lack of bank liquidity, corruption, and interruptions of all basic services have made living conditions quite desperate,” Muntasser said.
“These conditions formed the backdrop for the current military action,” he added.
The United Nations’ Panel of Experts has already warned of the threat that armed groups pose to vital state institutions, such as the Central Bank, the National Oil Company or even the Libyan Investment Authority.
A report by the Small Arms Survey report (SAS) in June said the Seventh Brigade – which operates under the banner of the GNA – had expanded significantly since mid-2017.
But armed groups pledging allegiance to the GNA doesn’t mean that they will also heed civilian authorities’ orders, analysts say.
“Everybody is under the GNA government because the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defence pay out salaries but nobody takes orders from them,” said Tarek Megerisi, a political researcher specialising in Libya.
“What happened about six or seven months ago is an alliance that formed between Zintan, Misrata, Tarhouna and Tajura, and they have been planning to attack Tripoli for a long time,” he added.
Megerisi said other fighters, including from smaller groups, are also participating in the current violence. They too had been pushed out from the capital in the past.
Why are they fighting?
In a paper brief published in April, Wolfram Lacher, a senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, warned of a worrying trend among Libyan armed groups; the rise of a “militia cartel” or “oligopoly”.
According to Lacher, four groups, in particular, exerted a disproportionate influence on the government.
These are the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigade, the Nawasi Brigade, the Special Deterrence Force and the Abu Slim unit of the Central Security apparatus.
“The pillaging of state funds – a hallmark of Libya’s political economy – now benefits a narrower group than at any previous point since 2011,” said Lacher.
“Actors excluded from this arrangement are building alliances to alter the balance of power in Tripoli by force.”
When the Presidential Council of al-Serraj arrived in Tripoli in 2016 by boat, the four groups were among the many that were already active in the city.
According to analysts, the four entities won the favour of the weak UN-backed government because they actively defended it.
At the same time, they benefited from the legitimacy that comes with being associated with a government.
Experts say recent events show the government’s inability time and again to demobilise irregular forces and integrate them into its defence and security apparatus.
This failure, in conjunction with the consolidation of military brigades to a handful of powerful factions, has angered rival militias who feel like they have been dealt with unjustly and marginalised, as well as being at risk of losing access to state funds.
In the short run, the consolidation helped make Tripoli safer by decreasing the risk of armed skirmishes but actors who were sidelined were working behind the scenes on making a comeback.
What is the international community saying?
The United States, France, Italy and the UK said in a joint statement on Saturday that they condemned the escalation of violence and warned, “Those who tamper with security in Tripoli or elsewhere in Libya that they will be held accountable for any such actions”.
“These attempts to weaken the legitimate Libyan authorities and hinder the ongoing political process are not acceptable,” the statement published by the French foreign ministry said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also condemned the violence but for many Libyans, the UN-backed GNA has no real authority on the ground.
“The GNA is a paper government with no influence of events,” lamented Muntasser.
“Plagued with incompetence, corruption and infighting, the GNA will come apart as soon as the armed gangs that offer it protection are driven out.”
This, in turn, complicates efforts by the international community and France especially to hold a vote before the end of the year.
Italy, the former colonial power in Libya, has voiced its readiness to host the warring parties in Rome for reconciliation talks that it says would set the stage for elections but not before mid-2019.
Is Libya ready for elections?
In May, when al-Serraj and Haftar met in the French capital, powerful armed groups in western Libya that officially fell under the GNA’s authority rejected the move.
They said it went against their interests.
Analysts told Al Jazeera at the time that political leaders agreeing to organise nationwide polls would not necessarily be a popular measure among their supporters, especially in Tripoli where al-Serraj has to appease armed groups backing the government.
Some of these armed groups are now fighting to take over the capital.
Experts say they may well be able to break through Tripoli’s defences and establish a foothold in the government where they will try to renegotiate their relationship with the GNA.
Megerisi said the Seventh Brigade employ a populist narrative of wanting to curb corruption and improve life for the average citizen but there is no guarantee that this is what they will do once in power.
“Everybody is vying for a piece of the pie,” he added.
A more immediate concern is the absence of a constitution to govern the electoral process and set out the mandate of executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.
Muntasser, the Libyan political analyst, suggests authorities take a different approach altogether by holding elections in regions that are under civilian control and deemed to be free and secure enough for a vote.
He said that as elections progress and are held in qualifying regions, a new parliament would be gradually formed.
“The new parliament will possess sovereignty and will have full legislative powers, including the authority to form a government, regardless of the number of members who will be voted in.
“This process will continue and more elections shall be held in an incremental fashion with districts electing their representatives to join the newly formed and functioning parliament,” Muntasser added.