One Country, Two Leaders: Clashes in Libya

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Jess Diez
Managing Editor & Research Associate, Middle East Policy Council

June 14, 2022

On Friday, June 10 and Saturday, June 11, Al-Nawasi and the Stability Support Apparatus, two Libyan militia groups backing oppositional prime ministers, broke out into violent conflict in the Souk Talat neighborhood of Libya’s capital, Tripoli. The conflict surge came amid tensions after the arrest of fighters from both groups and resulted in at least one death as well as a high degree of material damage. 

Al-Monitor described the breakout between the two militia groups as a clear indication of growing fear among citizens in Tripoli. Videos broadcasted and shared on social media showed civilians fleeing agglomerated areas in the capital. On Friday, “gunfire and explosions rang out across Tripoli during the fighting, described by one resident as possibly the ‘heaviest’ seen in the city for more than a decade…The clashes stopped after mediation by a neutral military force (Brigade 444), which deployed a number of its armoured vehicles…By Saturday, normality had largely been restored to the area, but the violence sparked renewed outrage among residents.”


One Country, Two Leaders: Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh and Fathi Bashagha

The two militia groups involved include Al-Nawasi, loyal to politician Fathi Bashaga, and the Stability Support Apparatus, which backs Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, Libya’s interim prime minister. Al-Jazeera highlights the historical events that helped shape the path towards this existing conflict: “After a 2011 revolt toppled longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi, political infighting to fill the power vacuum has plagued oil-rich Libya. Last month, Bashagha attempted to seize power by force, sparking pre-dawn clashes between armed groups supporting him and those backing Dbeibah. Dbeibah was appointed under a troubled United Nations-led peace process early last year to lead a transition to elections set for December 2021, but the vote was indefinitely postponed. In February, parliament appointed Bashagha, a one-time interior minister, to take over, arguing that Dbeibah’s mandate had ended. But Dbeibah has insisted he will only relinquish power to an elected administration.”

Thus, both militias maintain the belief that their respective politician is the rightful prime minister of Libya, creating opposing political leadership truths. Writing for the European Council on Foreign Relations, senior policy fellow Tarek Megerisi believes that international interference is needed in Libya. Arguing that Bashagha and his supporters, such as politician Aguila Saleh, have mobilized propaganda to convince others of his legitimacy as prime minister, Megerisi states that Western “diplomats should ignore the propaganda swirling around these latest developments and maintain pressure for a new election road map that culminates in an inclusive vote by summer. Ultimately, such a vote is the only means to find a stable political pathway for Libya…Bashagha and Saleh have mobilised an increasingly sophisticated propaganda machine to fabricate a public narrative for their campaign to wrest control of the country. This multi-layered misinformation network is making aggressive efforts across traditional and social media to shape how foreigners and Libyans interpret these political developments.”

Diving deeper into believed action needed from American and European governments, Megerisi holds the opinion that today, “states that are invested in Libyan diplomacy seem to feel an overwhelming impulse to mediate between the two sides, in the hope of reducing the likelihood of further conflict. But, if Libya is to avoid the same political dynamics that sparked its long-running civil war, such diplomacy will need to focus on establishing a new electoral road map and pushing both sides to accept it. As one could see in the aftermath of the UN dialogue forum, Libya’s elites can make progress if they are pushed into a position where publicly refusing to engage gives them clear responsibility for spoiling the electoral process, and where there are guarantees of broad political participation and future opportunities to challenge for power. Such an approach will require Paris and Cairo, Saleh’s and Bashagha’s closest international allies, to recognise that this is the only way to stabilise Libya in the long term.”

Aftermath of Recent Fighting 

Many politicians have condemned the recent clashes. Writing for Libya Observer, Abdulkader Assad pinpoints Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Al-Mangoush’s statements. Al-Mangoush stated that the “‘language of violence and intimidation of children… is totally rejected,’ adding that those involved in the incident should be held accountable ‘because Libyans deserve peace.’”

Jose Sabadell, the European Union’s ambassador to Libya, also tweeted his thoughts on the clashes. Also relayed in the Libya Observer, Sabadell said “what happened at Souq Al-Thulata ‘is shocking and shameful. Arms were fired at a park where children run and play. Public spaces in Tripoli belong to families, not to men with guns.’”

Many argue that although international attention is needed in Libya, there may not be enough spotlight on the issue. Writing for the Turkish think tank SETA Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research, researcher Bilgehan Öztürk states that the global focus on the Ukraine-Russia War deprotizes the Libyan conflict. According to Öztürk,“Western diplomacy is too preoccupied with Ukraine and will be for the foreseeable future. The UNSMIL is in a weaker position without the leadership of a special representative. The oil blockades imposed by forces loyal to Haftar as well as Bashagha’s repetitive attempts to enter Tripoli as a PM run the risk of triggering a new round of hot conflict. We are yet to see whether the U.S. or the Western alliance, in general, will take a harsher stance against the Russian presence in Libya in the light of the invasion of Ukraine. Without a meaningful pressure against the Russian presence in Libya, the current status quo, i.e. interim authorities with legitimacy issues, geographic and institutional division, sporadic armed standoffs, oil blockades, etc. will persist.”

However, a third round of U.N. brokered talks on Libyan elections resumed in Egypt on Sunday, June 12, thus repositioning the global policy conversation. Lebanon’s Naharnet states that the U.N. special adviser on Libya, Stephanie Williams, said talks in a Cairo hotel will continue till June 19 with the aim of establishing a constitutional framework ‘required to take the country to national elections as soon as possible. After eleven long years of division, dysfunction, conflict, chaos and polarization, the Libyan people are exhausted,’ she told attendees at the opening session. ‘You have a real opportunity, indeed a solemn responsibility, to give them hope, to provide a pathway towards elections within a firm constitutional framework.’”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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