Libya’s Escalating Power Struggle

Competition between two rival administrations is again fueling tensions in Tripoli — and foreign powers are looking on

Libya’s Escalating Power Struggle
Vehicles of forces loyal to Libya’s Tripoli-based Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbeibah are parked along the waterfront in the capital Tripoli on May 17, 2022 / Mahmud Turkia / AFP via Getty Images

The summer heat came early to Tripoli this year, and it brought back travails that compounded the sense of crisis provoked by growing military tensions in the capital. As people switched on their air conditioners, they drove up demand for electricity, forcing the state utility company to impose rolling blackouts of four hours or more. State institutions, private businesses and families then turned to their generators, whose demand for fuel provoked shortages at gas stations in the city, worsened by the lack of generators at some gas stations, which can’t operate through outages. By the time I left Tripoli in early June, lines of cars stretched for miles, with frustrated drivers waiting long hours for fuel so they could get to work or bring their children to school.

When Prime Minister Abdel Hamid Dbeibah formed his unity government in spring 2021, he had vowed to address Libya’s chronic electricity deficit as a matter of urgency. But the heat wave caught up with him just as Dbeibah is facing a direct challenge from the rival administration of Fathi Bashagha, who since March has unsuccessfully attempted three times to seize power in Tripoli.

In the latest of these bids, on May 17, a few days before I arrived, Bashagha sneaked into the capital in the middle of the night. He relied on one local armed militia for protection — the Nawasi Brigade — and hoped his arrival would persuade others to support him. Instead, an armed group opposing Bashagha’s takeover attacked the brigade’s bases in central Tripoli. By dawn, a militia that maintained neutrality in the dispute escorted Bashagha out of Tripoli, narrowly averting further escalation.

Bashagha and Dbeibah have returned Libya to the state of division between rival administrations that had prevailed since the outbreak of civil war in 2014 until the formation of Dbeibah’s government last year. The renewed split emerged after elections scheduled for December 2021 were canceled, sinking Libyans’ hopes that the country’s long-standing legitimacy crisis might end.

Controversies over presidential candidates’ eligibility to run led to the cancellation of elections. These included Dbeibah, who had promised he would not run when he became prime minister; Moammar Gadhafi’s son Saif al-Islam, who had been sentenced to death in Tripoli and faced an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court; and warlord Khalifa Haftar, whose forces continue to control the country’s east and center despite their defeat in June 2020 following a brutal, yearlong campaign to seize power in Tripoli by force.

When Dbeibah and Saif unexpectedly emerged as the frontrunners, other candidates decided the risks of losing were too great and pushed behind the scenes for the elections to be canceled. Among them were Haftar and Bashagha, who as interior minister had been a key figure in the resistance to Haftar’s Tripoli offensive. Having been deprived by Dbeibah of any chance at winning the elections, the two former enemies allied to form a new competing government and drive Dbeibah out of power.

That alliance shows how long-standing certainties in Libya’s conflicts have vanished: Like Dbeibah, Bashagha hails from Misrata, a port city that is home to some of western Libya’s most powerful armed groups and has been staunchly opposed to Haftar. While Bashagha’s pact with Haftar has found few supporters in Misrata, he has sought to compensate for this by enlisting various armed groups from Tripoli, Zawiya and Zintan that had also fought Haftar — but more recently turned against Dbeibah because of disputes over positions, budgets and contracts. Dbeibah, meanwhile, is now styling himself as the figurehead of the anti-Haftar forces, whose ethos is rooted in the 2011 revolution — an incongruous disguise, given that Dbeibah had grown rich before 2011 as a prominent public sector executive under Gadhafi.

Instead of replacing Dbeibah, Bashagha has ended up heading a parallel administration. There are many reasons for this. While Dbeibah’s reputation for corruption has alienated many across the country, Bashagha has failed to offer a convincing alternative. Like Dbeibah, Bashagha formed a government of almost 40 portfolios whose primary function is to allow factions to enrich themselves. Members of the eastern-based Parliament extorted positions for themselves or their relatives, and the key interior and foreign affairs ministries were given to particularly ill-reputed figures. Blatant procedural irregularities in government formation left Western governments reluctant to formally back Bashagha’s government. The absence of international recognition weakened Bashagha’s hand in trying to persuade armed groups in Tripoli to facilitate his takeover.

Most of all, Bashagha has been hamstrung by his excessive reliance on Haftar, whose appointees head the finance, planning, defense and communication ministries. Giving Haftar the lion’s share of portfolios limited what Bashagha could distribute to western Libyan factions — in other words, to the groups that control territory in and around the capital. For months this spring, militia leaders exploited the competition between the two prime ministers by proposing to sell their support to the highest bidder — and Bashagha could offer little more than promises.

Bashagha’s alliance with Haftar and the competitive market of loyalties it created speak to the raw transactionalism now driving Libyan power politics. But opportunism alone cannot explain Bashagha’s difficulties. Most leaders of armed groups that fought against Haftar now accept that no political solution can be reached without him. But they see Bashagha’s government as having handed Haftar far too much influence, paving the way for him to seize overall power — the continuation of his Tripoli offensive by other means. “Trojan horse” was a term I heard often when Bashagha came up in conversations in Tripoli and Misrata. Among the militias, opposition to Bashagha goes far beyond support for Dbeibah.

Competition between the two governments is stoking tensions between two emerging military coalitions in western Libya. Small clashes and demonstrations of force punctuated my visit to Tripoli. After I left, militias on opposing sides of the political divide fought for hours in central Tripoli, causing a panicked flight for safety by families out to enjoy the summer evening. In the wake of Bashagha’s most recent failure to seize power in the capital, members of Dbeibah’s entourage and militia leaders opposed to the Bashagha government feel strengthened. Mahmoud ben Rajab, a leading figure from the western city of Zawiya, dismissed Bashagha’s western Libyan allies as merely posturing: “They’re surrounded from all sides. Whenever they’ve brought out their technicals [pickups with mounted guns], they ultimately returned to their bases without firing a single shot.”

But the anti-Bashagha camp lacks ideas on how to move forward. Seen as a unifier when he took office, Dbeibah has been tarnished; the popularity he enjoyed last year is long gone, and he has irrevocably lost his status as foreign powers’ official interlocutor in Tripoli. Equally important, he has great difficulties in accessing state funds. Most checks Dbeibah handed out to armed groups to buy loyalty have not cleared in recent months, since the central bank governor has tightened the purse strings. Haftar has partially shut down oil production in areas under his control to dissuade the National Oil Corporation from transferring revenue to the central bank. The U.S., for its part, has sought to discourage the central bank from granting Dbeibah access to funding, in an effort to broker arrangements to get the oil flowing again.

The pro-Bashagha camp similarly overestimates its prospects. Militia leaders aligned with Bashagha maintain that key armed groups in Tripoli are secretly on board with him. In fact, Bashagha has no other option but to try to seize power in Tripoli: The balance sheets of commercial banks headquartered in eastern Libya no longer sustain the debt-based financing strategy used by the previous parallel government in the east.

Likewise, those western Libyan armed groups that have come out in support of Bashagha now have little choice but to persevere. By stoking insecurity with frequent but small confrontations, they may create the impression that Dbeibah has lost control and thus broaden acceptance of a Bashagha takeover. Meanwhile, they are plotting ways to tilt the balance of forces in their favor — including by joining up with their erstwhile enemies: Haftar loyalists from western Libya, who had been exiled or laid low since the defeat of his Tripoli offensive. “Just now, I got a call from R.B. [a pro-Haftar militia leader from Zintan]. He’s telling me, let’s go enter Tripoli together,” a Zintani militia leader who had fought against Haftar in the last war told me.

For Haftar, backing the Bashagha government undoubtedly has benefits even if it cannot take office in Tripoli: Getting western Libyan armed groups to fight each other is a boon for Haftar and could allow him to regain a foothold in the region. Pro-Bashagha militia leaders simply shrug off the suggestion that their feud with Dbeibah serves Haftar’s interests — they know it does, but getting back at Dbeibah has priority. “I’m with Fathi [Bashagha] to spite Abdel Hamid [Dbeibah],” one of the rare Misratan militia leaders still backing Bashagha told me.

Libyan observers and Western diplomats alike frequently downplay the danger of these growing tensions by asserting that Libyans are tired of war. The narratives of past conflicts have certainly been exhausted: revolution and counterrevolution, Haftar’s wholesale demonization of his enemies as Islamists, his adversaries’ rejection of any negotiated settlement with him. And the bulk of western Libyan armed groups do not consider the struggle between Dbeibah and Bashagha worth fighting for. They are increasingly tired of both figures and looking for a third way out of the crisis. But it’s also possible that Libyans and Western diplomats are deceiving themselves.

When listening to militia leaders on both sides of the divide discuss the prospect of armed confrontation, I am reminded of similar conversations I had prior to previous conflicts in Tripoli. Ultimately, Libya has enjoyed relative calm since the defeat of Haftar’s Tripoli offensive, not because of war fatigue, but because the Turkish and Russian military presence had established a balance of power that Libyan actors had no way of overturning. Conflict among western Libyan armed groups would change this, since Turkey has sought to avoid taking sides in the tug of war and would be reluctant to intervene in support of either side.

Further escalation appears to be the path of least resistance. While a critical mass of actors favors a negotiated solution that would sideline both Dbeibah and Bashagha, currently there is no forum for talks. The United Nations has lost the initiative to Egypt, which has hosted negotiations between Libya’s two legislative bodies on a legal framework for elections. But in mid-June, those negotiations ended without a result — a predictable failure, since both bodies have proven repeatedly that their supreme interest lies in their own perpetuation. Haftar’s sons are meeting with western Libyan militia leaders in Morocco and Egypt to discuss ways forward, but the range of participants is insufficiently broad and the objectives of host governments dubious. Western governments, busy with other foreign policy priorities, display little appetite to help build a new political process that could provide a more broadly recognized forum.

Even if a new process is eventually agreed to, whether before or after an escalation in Tripoli, it is likely to gain only a cautious reception. Many Libyan political actors are skeptical that a new round of negotiations could avoid past mistakes — like a partial deal to divide ministries that falls apart within a few months. And after last year’s deceit, few now talk about elections as a realistic scenario for the short term. As one politician who before the latest war had led outreach efforts to Haftar told me: “We may just have to wait for Haftar to die.”

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