Gunfire, explosions, smoke and ash. Tripoli has once again become a battlefield and an inferno for its inhabitants. Violence has taken hold of Libya's capital in a scenario marked by the protracted institutional deadlock and the lack of political solutions. Dialogue, impracticable, has given weapons another chance. The parties consider that only force can solve the puzzle in the North African country, and control of Tripoli seems crucial to dominate the rest of the territory.
Clashes between armed groups linked to the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity (GNU) and those loyal to the Misrata-based parallel executive have left a trail of blood in the capital. At least 32 people have been killed and more than 150 injured in a series of clashes on Saturday, according to Health Ministry figures. Clouds of black smoke, charred vehicles and bullet marks on the walls flooded Tripoli.
The latest outbreak of violence in the capital came just a few weeks ago, when militias close to the prime minister of the parallel government, Fathi Bashagha, tried unsuccessfully to storm Tripoli, the stronghold of Abdul Hamid Dbeibé's government. The fighting resulted in 13 fatalities. Bashagha's aim was to overthrow the UN-sponsored government, which he considers to have failed to meet the deadlines set by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF).
This time, the attempt by Bashagha, who was Interior Minister during Fayez al-Sarraj's Government of National Accord, was more ambitious. The Haithem Al Tajouri militia, the strongest armed group operating in the capital, and the Nawasi Force, formerly linked to General Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army, launched the fighting on the orders of the parallel prime minister. The Special Deterrence Forces (SDF), the Islamist-led militia, defended the enclave in support of the Dbeibé government.
The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), which had raised the alarm over fears of renewed fighting, reported "indiscriminate" shelling in residential areas and in the densely populated city centre. Each neighbourhood had its own front line and hundreds of Tripolitans were caught in the crossfire. One of those killed was the well-known Mustafa Baraka, a young comedian who used to post videos on social media ridiculing gun violence and corruption.
The climax of the violence was reached on Saturday afternoon, but the last outbreaks of violence subsided hours later. Armed groups loyal to the government of national unity seized with the help of drones the last stronghold of the enemy militias, who retreated to the outskirts of the capital. On Sunday, Tripoli awoke to a tense calm. Citizens are regaining some sense of normality as they await a new outbreak of violence.
The scene was reminiscent of the offensive on Tripoli launched in 2019 by Haftar. The so-called Operation Dignity aimed to subdue the capital and bring down the government of al-Sarraj, the predecessor of Dbeibé's government. This time, Bashagha did the same on a much smaller scale, reducing the conflict to a Tripolitanian level without involving foreign forces. He failed in his second attempt, but is unlikely to stop despite his latest statements, in which he has pledged to renounce violence in his political action.
However, Libya's military prosecutor's office under Dbeibé ordered Bashagha and General Osama al-Juwaili, the visible head of the militias loyal to the parallel prime minister, to be restricted from leaving the country.
The transition seemed to be on track in July 2021 with the appointment of the unknown Misrata businessman Abdul Hamid Dbeibé. He would be in charge of piloting the government of national unity until general elections are held in December. However, the Tripoli authorities were powerless to agree terms with the Tobruk-based administration in the east. The deadline expired without the UN's prerogatives being met.
The institutional deadlock intensified in February with the appointment of Fathi Bashagha as prime minister by the Tobruk parliament. The legislature, an inconsistent supporter and then staunch opponent of the institutions created under the LDFP, considered Dbeibé's mandate to have expired and approved the formation of a new government without legal basis. Bashagha, allied with the eastern administration, established his stronghold in the city of Sirte, from where he threatens Dbeibé's leadership internally and externally.