Members of the Libyan Police prepare for deployment as part of a security plan put forth by the Tripoli-based government in the Libyan capital. Reuters / Ismail Zitouny
TRIPOLI – On the surface life looks normal in the Libyan capital. Cafes are bustling with customers sipping cappuccino, while well-stocked shops sell anything from Italian underwear to French cheese.
But as in the days of Muammar Gaddafi, many residents prefer to avoid talking politics in Tripoli, where a self-declared government has ruled since an armed faction called Libya Dawn seized the capital by expelling its rivals in August.
Across Libya to the east, where the internationally recognised government operates and a former general is battling Islamist militants, many Libyans are just as wary, fearing any criticism will see them branded as traitors or worse.
The oil-producing nation is now effectively split in two with the internationally recognized Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni confined to the east since losing control of Tripoli and a rival administration controlling the capital and its surroundings.
Both governments are backed by former rebel brigades who united to topple Gaddafi in 2011 but have since turned their guns on each other as Libya slides toward a wider civil war.
The heavily armed groups have been fighting on different fronts for territory and control of oil ports. Hundreds of civilians have been killed and 400,000 displaced inside Libya since the summer, according to the United Nations.
With the country polarized between the two rival factions who dismiss each other as traitors, terrorists or war criminals, many Libyans explain that, as in the Gaddafi era, it’s best to say little and avoid trouble.
“I keep politics at home,” said an entrepreneur who gave his name as Mahmoud. Like other Tripoli residents interviewed he preferred not to use his full name for fear of reprisals.
“You don’t want to get into trouble criticizing the government or armed groups,” he said, sitting with family members in the large reception room of their Tripoli home. “In Libya the political atmosphere is now you are with me or against me.”
Diplomats and foreign companies have mostly pulled out of Tripoli since the summer when Dawn forces battled rival armed groups to drive them out of the city in weeks of rocket fire and shelling that destroyed the airport.
Human rights activists, journalists and supporters of Thinni or of an armed group from Zintan, which was expelled by Dawn, have fled the capital after facing threats or attacks, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have said.