A year ago, Libya looked to be on a fragile path towards democracy after more than a decade of civil war. Now, it appears to be sliding back towards strife and division.
After tentative steps towards unity, the country is once again being pulled apart with two rival prime ministers claiming power.
The first signs of serious trouble emerged late last year when presidential elections scheduled for December 24 were postponed indefinitely. Underlying the delay was disagreement over eligible candidates and the ground rules for holding the vote.
The election had been intended to replace a transitional government formed a year ago and headed by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah. On February 10, the parliament appointed Fathi Bashagha, a former interior minister, to form a new government. It said elections should be held within 14 months.
Dbeibah refused to step aside, pledging to hold on to power until elections take place.
Back to square one
For many Libyans and observers, it looks like a return to parallel governments is imminent, with the possibility of more fighting. Libya has been racked by conflict since the NATO-backed Arab Spring uprising toppled former ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.
The country was for years split between rival administrations in the east and west, each supported by militias and foreign governments.
Attempts by the international community to help unify the country were thwarted as powerful Libyan parties and their foreign backers refused to compromise. Elections were delayed after a failure to reach a consensus on election laws or even on who should be eligible to run. A series of UN envoys to the country left office frustrated at Libyan parties’ unwillingness to cede power and funds accumulated during the war.
Bashagha and Dbeibah could both portray the situation as a struggle “between legitimate and illegitimate”, said Wolfram Lacher, a Libya expert with the Berlin-based SWP research institute.
“In reality, it is a struggle between two sides that both seek to exercise power indefinitely and without accountability,” he said.
Here’s a look at the main players in the country:
Two prime ministers
Both Bashagha and Dbeibah hail from Misrata, a city in western Libya. Its well-armed militias were crucial in the US-backed fight against the armed group ISIL (ISIS) in 2016, and most recently in fending off a 2019 offensive on the capital Tripoli by east-based forces of commander Khalifa Haftar.
Bashagha, 59, is a former air force pilot and businessman. He served as interior minister in the UN-supported administration in Tripoli from 2018 until March 2021, when UN-led talks led to the formation of the transitional government.
He has positioned himself as one of the most powerful figures in western Libya, though he has clashed with some local militias. He has cultivated ties with Turkey, France, and the US, but also with Egypt and Russia – his nominal rivals during the offensive on Tripoli.
Bashagha sought to lead the transitional government, but was beaten by Dbeibah in a UN-brokered process marred by allegations of corruption. He had also planned to run for president, hoping to compete against Haftar, Dbeibah and Gaddafi’s son, Seif al-Islam, before the December race was called off.
Dbeibah, who has a university degree in engineering from Canada, is a relative political novice. He is believed to rely on the wealth of a relative, Ali Dbeibah, one of the richest people in Libya, who was a politician in Gaddafi’s time.
After the 2011 uprising, the Dbeibahs allied themselves with a powerful militia known as the Misrata Brigades.
As head of the transitional government, Dbeibah, 59, has made some political enemies. He had pledged not to run for president, but then went back on his promise and announced his candidacy, alienating some of his most powerful supporters. Dbeibah was often at odds with powerful Parliament Speaker Aguila Saleh and Haftar.
Divisive strongman in the east
Haftar was a senior military officer under Gaddafi but defected in the 1980s during Libya’s war with Chad. He later spent more than two decades in Washington, during which he is widely believed to have worked with the CIA.
He returned and joined the 2011 anti-Gaddafi uprising. In 2014, his Libyan Arab Armed Forces battled rival factions across eastern and southern Libya.
They now control Libya’s east and much of the south, including vital oil fields and terminals.
In April 2019, he tried to capture Tripoli. His 14-month military campaign failed, leading to a UN-mediated ceasefire and political talks that formed Dbeibah’s interim government.
Haftar, a dual US and Libyan citizen, has the support of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, as well as France and Russia. His rivals are aided mainly by Turkey and Qatar.
He announced his bid for the presidency, building his campaign on his ability to bring security and stability to areas he controls. Haftar’s critics accuse him of seeking to establish autocratic rule.
Haftar’s forces welcomed the appointment of Bashagha, forming an alliance against Dbeibah.
But such a partnership could prove costly for the designated prime minister. It will likely complicate his efforts to preside over genuine law enforcement and security sector reform, said Jalel Harchaoui, a Libya researcher.
Bashagha also faces other challenges, said Harchaoui. He needs to find a way to work with Sadiq al-Kabir, the governor of the Central Bank of Libya, which recently announced steps towards unifying its branches in the east and west. The bank is the repository for billions of dollars annually in revenue from Libya’s large oil deposits, as well as foreign reserves.
Another major concern for Bashagha is the deep mistrust of Haftar shared by many in the West.
“The crisis may well worsen if those questions are not handled tactfully,” said the analyst.
Gaddafi’s one-time heir apparent
When Seif al-Islam Gaddafi emerged from years in hiding in mid-November to announce his bid for the presidency, he sent shockwaves across Libya.
The one-time heir apparent was released from a militia-run prison in 2017, but is still wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges of crimes against humanity during the 2011 uprising.
He has slowly engineered a political return, capitalising on the dysfunction created by war. He depends largely on links to tribes across the country, and reconciled with militias that were once his fiercest foes. His candidacy proved threatening enough to unite otherwise rival factions against him.
Harchaoui said recent developments have sidelined Seif al-Islam, despite his apparent popularity, because he does not command the loyalty of enough armed men.
“The opinion of the populace is largely ignored, and the electoral process is in very poor shape,” he said. “In this kind of environment, Seif is barely relevant.”