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Tripoli latest clashes: triggers and potential consequences

August 17, 2023 at 8:30 am

Forces affiliated with the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNU) deploy following two days of deadly clashes between two rival groups in Libya’s capital, on August 16, 2023 [MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP via Getty Images]

Life is returning slowly to areas in the south and south-east of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, after almost two days of heavy clashes in which heavy weapons, including tanks, were used mostly in residential areas of Ain Zara, Salah Eddin, Tripoli University and Tariq Al-Shok. On Monday afternoon, 14 August, I was at Mitiga Airport where everything appeared normal but, less than an hour later, the Airport was closed and arriving flights diverted to Misrata Airport, while all departing flights were cancelled.  The fight between the Special Deterrence Force (SDF), which controls the Airport, and the 444 Brigade came as a surprise. 

Both sides are, nominally, part of the Government of National Unity and its Presidential Council. While the SDF is part of the Council, the 444 Brigade was part of it until it split away and became independent under the same Prime Minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, who is also the Defence Minister.

What triggered the latest fighting is not clear but a plausible explanation says that the Commander of the Brigade, Mahmoud Hamza, was detained at Mitiga Airport, controlled by the SDF, while he was attempting to board a flight from Mitiga to Misrata, some 200 km east of Tripoli. Sources say that he was actually joining Prime Minister Dbeibeh to attend some military school graduation ceremony in Misrata. Whether this is the case or not, the fighting is another indicator of how fragile government control is, even in the capital itself, let alone outside it. Both sides clashed last May for a similar reason.

After an estimated 100 people were injured and 27 killed, mostly civilians, and an unknown amount of destruction, Tripoli’s latest agony came to an end on Tuesday afternoon after Mr. Hamza was released. He was handed over to another former militia leader, Abdelghani Al-Kikli, aka ‘‘Ghenewa’’. He leads the Stabilisation Support Force—a special force created in 2021 and which quickly became one of the dominant armed groups in Tripoli.

In a statement on its Facebook page, the Stabilisation Force confirmed it had received Commander Hamza. Without disclosing more details, the statement said that an “agreement was reached between the conflicting parties at the initiative” of Ghenewa. 

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In August last year, fierce clashes broke out in Tripoli between forces loyal to Mr. Dbeibeh and counter forces supporting the counter administration set up in eastern Libya, in a doomed attempt to take over Tripoli. The poor civilians bore the brunt of a few days of fighting that claimed the lives of at least 30 people, while causing widespread destruction in mainly residential areas.

Each time violence breaks out in the capital, the government of the day promises to find out who is responsible, but it never does—in most cases, the perpetrators of violence are well-known. 

For example, in June 2022, after another round of violence between armed militias, the government launched an investigation to identify and “hold responsible” those who “wilfully use force that endangers the lives of civilians”. A year later, and nobody has been held accountable and no one has been identified as the perpetrator responsible for terrorising the city of nearly two million people.

The government is yet to promise any investigation of this latest fighting, but it is likely to do so; however, it will be another empty attempt and no one will punished.  

Since the NATO-supported armed rebellion of 2011 that killed the late Colonel Muammer Gaddafi, Libya has seen little peace, with big cities like Tripoli and Benghazi in the east and Sebha, the capital of the southern region, becoming battlefields for different armed militias fighting over control. They are also accused of being involved in different crimes, including kidnapping, abuse and trafficking. 

Late last night, after the fighting ended, the Airport was re-opened and Mr. Dbeibeh surveyed the destruction left behind and ordered that compensation be paid to the suffering civilians.  This is the most he could really do, since he cannot, for example, expel or replace any of the armed militia leaders who are, in name, under his control while they are free to make their own decisions about war and peace.  

In the background, the political stalemate to organise national presidential and legislative elections continues, with little hope in sight. The United Nations-led political mediations, spearheaded by its envoy, Abdoulaye Bathily, issued a statement warning what it called “possible impact of these developments [the fighting]” on the efforts to cultivate what it termed a “security environment that is conducive” to preparations for “national elections”.

If Mr. Bathily still believes that elections are possible in Libya this year, as he has repeatedly said, he must be over-ambitious, to say the least. The country is not only divided between east and west but still lacks the required legal framework for any elections. Both the House of Representatives in Tobruk and the High Council of State in Tripoli are yet to agree on consensual election laws. And, even if they do, there is no guarantee that voting will happen and its outcome will be acceptable by all stakeholders. 

On top of that, the latest fighting in the heart of the capital is a clear sign of how supremely armed militias really reign in the country. Independent and fair elections would require disarming and disbanding them, which is unrealistic given the prevailing conditions in Libya, as manifested this week in Tripoli. 

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Many Libya watchers think, perhaps, the best hope for any possible elections is to, somehow, manage to confine the armed militias to their barracks on Election Day. Even this is not always a guaranteed arrangement.  Armies and arms must be a state monopoly and the use of violence must not happen, unless for legal reasons clearly defined by the law. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Libya today. 

As long as there is no effective central and unified government commanding a unified army, with real control over arms, last week’s violence is likely to be repeated, again and again, in Tripoli and in other places in Libya, as seen over the last decade—it is just a matter of a trigger. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.