CAIRO — After three years of chaos since Moammar Gadhafi’s fall, Libya is further crumbling into a failed state after Islamist-allied militias took over the capital Tripoli and other cities and set up their own government, driving out a parliament that was elected over the summer.
The militia takeover last month has raised alarm in the West. Among the militias are Islamic extremists, including Ansar al-Shariah, which now rules the country’s second largest city, Benghazi. The group is blamed for the killing of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in a 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in the city. France’s defense minister in an interview published Tuesday warned that Libya is a “hub for terrorists” and called for international action, even talking of moving French troops to the borders.
Beyond fears of extremists, many Libyans worry their country is on the verge of complete fragmentation.
Fighting the past month as the militias took over Tripoli and Benghazi drove more than 100,000 Libyans from their homes and some 150,000 foreign workers out of the country. Tripoli’s international airport was virtually demolished as rival militias battled to control it. During the fighting, both sides wildly bombarded residential neighborhoods and kidnapped civilians suspected of supporting their opponents, acts that Human Rights Watch this week said amount to crimes against humanity.
“Libya has entered the condition of a failed state. We are very similar to Lebanon in the 1980s or Somalia,” said Libyan analyst Ezz Eddin Ukail, speaking from neighboring Tunisia. “We are at the doorstep of a civil war.”
Now the oil-rich North African nation has two rival, would-be governments. One, based in Tripoli, has been declared by Islamists backed by the might of an umbrella group of militias called Libya Dawn, which controls the capital.
On the other side, the parliament elected in June — which is dominated by anti-Islamist politicians — was forced to flee to the remote eastern coastal city of Tobruk, near the Egyptian border more than 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) from Tripoli. There, it is setting up its own government, led by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni and backed by the weak and shattered military and a few militias.
All around the country, cities, towns, tribes and ethnic minorities are now choosing sides, raising the possibility of greater conflict. Across much of the west, militias running most cities have thrown their backing to the Islamists in Tripoli, but the cities’ populations are divided. In the south this week, the Tabu ethnic group declared its backing for the Tobruk government after rival Arab tribes in the area gave their support to the Tripoli government.
Meanwhile, neither government can actually rule. The Tripoli militias control ministry buildings — but bureaucrats and ministry employees have largely ignored their calls to come to work, and there is no one to make decisions.
“We have ministries without ministers. There is no one in power, no budget,” said Adel Sunallah, the head of the Culture Ministry’s media office. “The government is in a state of paralysis.”
Libya’s oil exports are flowing — at up to 740,000 barrels a day, one of the few bright spots in the country. The revenues are put into the Central Bank. Both sides are pushing for the bank to give it the money but so far, the bank has tried to stay neutral, apparently waiting until courts resolve which government is legitimate. It has disbursed money to pay government salaries but nothing more. The head of the Central Bank has gone so far as to physically remove himself, travelling to Malta.
In one of the many ironies in Libya, many of the militias on both sides are receiving salaries since they are officially on government payrolls. “We are giving salaries to those who are battling with us,” said Tarek al-Garoushi, a lawmaker in the Tobruk-based parliament.
The conflict is broadly painted as one between Islamist and liberals. But in many ways it is less ideological than a political struggle for power. For example, militias from Libya’s third largest city, Misrata, are the main force allied to the Islamists and led the takeover of Tripoli. But not all of those militias have Islamist ideologies. Instead, they contend they are protecting the country against Gadhafi loyalists they say are behind the anti-Islamist politicians.
Aiman Abushahma, a prominent physician and activist from Misrata, said the militia takeover in Tripoli was “needed to liberate the capital from an occupying force,” referring to militias that back the elected parliament.
However, in Benghazi, they also allied with al-Qaida-style Islamic extremist militias, including Ansar al-Shariah.
Those groups are now “cementing their control over the levers of state” in Benghazi, said a police official in the city. The militants took over the state registrar’s office, so they have the complete database for members of the military and police, the official said. That has allowed the radicals to continue a wave of assassinations against security officials that has gone on for months, he said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to protect himself.
Libya has been in turmoil since longtime strongman Gadhafi was ousted and killed in the 2011 civil war. The military and police — always weak under Gadhafi — never recovered from the war and instead power fell to the numerous, heavily armed militias around the country, which were based on loyalty to a hometown or region or to particular commanders or to ideologies, including some made up of al-Qaida-style jihadis.
Politicians, meanwhile, struggled to create a functioning government. The last parliament, known as the General National Congress, was elected in 2012 and came to have a slim majority of Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood. But splits between Islamists and their opponents paralyzed the government, and each side grew increasingly allied with militias, turning the political disputes into armed conflict.
The current situation emerged after an anti-Islamist general, Khalifa Hifter, launched a campaign this year to outright crush the Islamists, their militia allies and militant groups, accusing them of causing the turmoil that has plagued the country since Gadhafi’s fall. Hifter quickly drew support from anti-Islamist militias and politicians, and units from the military flocked to join him.
Furthermore, opponents of Islamists largely won elections for parliament in late June in a major blow to the Brotherhood.
But the setbacks only sparked a powerful backlash from pro-Islamist militias. The Libya Dawn forces — led by the Misrata militias — opened an assault on Tripoli’s airport, controlled by rival militias from the western region of Zintan. After five weeks of fierce fighting, the Misrata fighters captured the airport and seized control of the entire capital. Militants in Benghazi drove out Hifter’s forces.
After seizing Tripoli, the Misrata militias reconvened the previous, Islamist-led parliament, which now claims it is the legitimate authority. On Monday, it swore in its own prime minister, Omar al-Hassi.
Fueling the turmoil, the conflict has also brought in regional players. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have backed forces supporting the newly elected parliament, hoping to crush their common rival, the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood and its allies, in turn, have the backing of the rich tiny Gulf state of Qatar and of Turkey.
Faraj Najm, a former lawmaker, said “the whole struggle is over power and money” — and that the militias that took over Tripoli now face running a population where, like Benghazi, much of the population does not necessarily support them.