Tripoli, Libya – Fathi Bashagha, one of Libya’s two rival prime ministers, is from Misrata – as is his rival, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, whose internationally recognised government sits in Tripoli.
But Bashagha has largely stayed away since being appointed by the country’s eastern-based parliament, because Misrata has long been seen as a stronghold of support for the Dbeibah government and opposition to General Khalifa Haftar, the eastern-based militia leader who has backed the parliament.
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But many there are now wary of Dbeibah after he struck a recent deal with Haftar to replace the head of the National Oil Corporation, Mustafa Sanallah.
Farhat Bengdara, who is seen as closely allied with Haftar, was appointed head of the NOC by Dbeibah earlier this month, and forces and tribes loyal to Haftar announced an end to the months-long oil exports blockade the following day.
The closure had cost the Libyan government more than $3bn in lost revenue.
Misrata, known as Libya’s economic hub, is Libya’s third-largest city, houses the country’s largest port and is seen as a major source of power in western Libya.
Mabrook Ismail, a young businessman who fought against Haftar’s forces when the latter attempted to take Tripoli in 2019, is one of those who are now more open to Bashagha.
“Bashagha has always been transparent,” Ismail told Al Jazeera by phone from Misrata. “His recent alliance with Haftar was on top of the table. I didn’t like that and considered him a traitor. But Dbeibah is now making deals with Haftar behind closed doors. I’d rather have the devil I can see.”
That feeling is echoed by many in Misrata and has given Bashagha an opening he previously did not have.
Last Wednesday, he returned to his home on the outskirts of Misrata, and violence followed him.
On Saturday, clashes on the city’s outskirts erupted between the joint operation force funded by Dbeibah and another group supporting Bashagha. At least one person was killed in the fighting before city officials and tribal leaders negotiated a deal to calm the situation.
“Misratans are known as the defenders of democracy and have foiled many attempts to turn Libya back to military rule,” said Emad Beleid, a Libyan journalist based in Tripoli.
“The issue is greater than the story of the Dbeibah government and the Bashagha government, this is a military and political project to weaken the city and to create a social rift that pits the people of Misrata against each other.”
Men from Misrata were critical to the success of the Libyan revolution that toppled longtime leader Muammar Gadaffi in 2011.
They were also the major force that liberated the city of Sirte from ISIL (ISIS) control and greatly contributed to the defence of Tripoli during Haftar’s failed military campaign.
US Ambassador and Special Envoy to Libya Richard Norland said the “clashes in Misrata demonstrate the dangerous prospect that the recent violence will escalate”.
He added that the “heightened tensions demonstrate the urgent necessity for Libya’s political leaders to immediately embrace an agreed path to elections which can install a truly legitimate, unified government to serve the interests of all Libyans.”
The clashes in Misrata came a day after fighting broke out between two armed groups in Tripoli.
The violence between the Special Deterrent Forces and the Presidential Guard broke out when the rival groups traded blame for kidnappings. Both are part of the Libyan government’s fragile security services, and the sporadic fighting that lasted for two days took place in several heavily populated areas across the capital, damaging many homes.
Health officials say that at least 16 people were killed and more than 34 injured. Children were among the victims.
“We protest the presence of military bases inside our neighbourhoods,” a statement issued by the protest organisers said. “Last night we didn’t sleep. Not us, our children, or our elderly. Our homes were hit and our cars destroyed in the clashes.”
Dbeibah has suspended interior minister Khalid Almazen from his duties until an investigation is completed.
His temporary replacement, Badr Aldin Tumi, told Al Jazeera he will work to ensure the fighting does not happen again.
“Tripoli has never witnessed this level of fighting in times of peace,” Tumi said while touring neighbourhoods damaged by the fighting. “We’ve established a committee to assess the damages incurred by private citizens so they can be reimbursed. We’ve launched an investigation into this incident, and have developed a security plan so that events like this won’t be repeated.”
But people are angry.
Mohamed was standing in front of his home during Tumi’s visit but refused to speak to the minister, he said the visit was too little, too late.
“The government doesn’t care about us,” Mohammed said. “The ministers are coming now? What do we want with them now – after the fighting stopped? After our homes were destroyed. We don’t need them now.”
Elections postponed indefinitely
Libya has seen relative peace since a nationwide ceasefire was signed in October 2020.
A political settlement in March 2021 saw Dbeibah take power. He was tasked with leading the country until elections, which were expected in December 2021 but have been postponed indefinitely.
In March this year, the eastern-based parliament voted in a parallel government headed by Bashagha, but Dbeibah refused to step down until there was an elected government to hand over power to. He still enjoys international recognition.
Negotiations between the rival administrations have been stuck in a political deadlock. A meeting in Geneva in June between the speaker of the parliament Aguila Saleh and President of the High Council of State Khalid al-Mishri failed to reach any final consensus on a constitutional framework to hold elections.
Bashagha, the former minister of interior, has the support of various armed groups across the country. But many people in western Libya are cautious of his alliance with Haftar.
Clashes ensued when Bashagha attempted to enter Tripoli in May, and he was forced to flee the capital and decided to base his government in the city of Sirte saying he “refused to use force to enter Tripoli”.
But now sources close to Bashagha say he is determined to enter Tripoli in the coming days or weeks. That has raised concerns among Libyans and the international community that the country could fall back into a full-scale conflict.