Weeks of fighting escalated in Libya this weekend as anti-government fighters secured control of the country’s main airport in the capital, Tripoli.
A group of pro-government fighters from the western city of Zintan had controlled the airport since the 2011 fall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi. But on Saturday, a coalition of Islamist fighters from the city of Misrata called "Operation Dawn" pushed that group out.
It’s been just a little over three years since the Zintanis and Islamist fighters battled side by side against Gaddafi forces. Yet today, the two groups -- along with smaller supporting militias -- are locked in a vicious fight for economic and political control, pushing the country closer to the brink of collapse. Libya is falling apart, and this is why it matters:
Libya now has 2 parliaments and 2 prime ministers.
The current wave of violence is the most intense Libya has seen since 2011. It started after the country’s parliamentary elections in June, when members of the outgoing Islamist-dominated parliament lost the vote to liberal and federalist candidates. The Islamists and their backers refused to recognize the newly elected body, and the new MPs moved the parliament from the capital to the eastern city of Tobruk out of fears for their safety.
The Islamists, empowered by their victory in Tripoli over the weekend, called on Monday for the old parliament to be reinstated and even elected their own prime minister. As Reuters notes, this move leaves the country with “two rival leaders and assemblies each backed by armed factions.”
The Islamists and Zintanis have radically opposing views. As David Kirkpatrick writes in The New York Times, Zintani supporters believe the Islamists' campaign resembles that of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Meanwhile, those who back the Islamists argue that the Zintanis want to turn back the results of the 2011 revolution.
Bullet shells litter the ground as a member of the Islamist-linked militia of Misrata walks past following three days of battles in the area of Tripoli's international airport, on Aug. 21, 2014. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP/Getty Images)
The government and the army are too weak to impose order.
The Libyan army has few national troops it can rely on, forcing it to turn to local militias to secure key sites. But these militias have their own agendas, and fighters' allegiances ultimately lie with their commanders.
The country's rival groups are also divided on many different levels, as The Washington Post's Frederic Wehrey explains. There's a political divide between Islamists and liberals, a regional divide between fighters from the city of Misrata and Zintan, and a divide between the old order and those who consider themselves revolutionaries.
"There is not one faction strong enough to coerce or compel the others," Wehrey writes.
This week’s developments on the battlefield weakened the government’s position even more. Libya’s Foreign Minister Mohamed Abdel Aziz told the Guardian on Monday that “Operation Dawn” is stronger and better-armed than the government and that the authorities are unable to safeguard key state institutions.
A striking example of the government’s inability to set policy is the case of renegade Gen. Khalifa Haftar, who earlier this year took on a mission of clearing Libya of Islamists. Haftar started his career fighting for Gaddafi, but during the 2011 revolution he allied himself with Islamist fighters against the strongman. Since February of this year, he's been waging a campaign from the city of Benghazi against Islamist militias, commanding his own troops and mini-air force. Together with the Zintanis, Haftar even launched a defiant raid in May on the then-Islamist dominated parliament.
Libya's Maj. Gen. Khalifa Haftar on Feb. 14, 2014. (Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Regional powers are adding fuel to the fire.
The involvement of powerful regional players is severely complicating the conflict between Libya's factions.
On Monday, American officials told The New York Times that attacks by mystery planes on Islamist fighters last week were the work of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Both countries are denying involvement in the strikes. The move sparked widespread condemnation and prompted the U.S. and some of its allies to warn against foreign interference in Libya.
As the Times explains, Libya appears to have become the newest turf in a struggle between powerful Arab nations over competing visions for the region.
Since the military ouster of the Islamist president in Egypt one year ago, the new Egyptian government, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have formed a bloc exerting influence in countries around the region to roll back what they see as a competing threat from Islamists. Arrayed against them are the Islamist movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, backed by friendly governments in Turkey and Qatar, that sprang forward amid the Arab Spring revolts.
A Libyan army soldier stands guard in Tripoli, Libya, on Nov. 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Manu Brabo)
Life for many Libyan civilians is worsening.
In the meantime, many Libyans -- especially those in the capital -- face increasingly dire conditions.
During last week's violence in Tripoli, gangs of armed men burned and destroyed the homes of government supporters, and entire neighborhoods were reportedly leveled. The airport and seaport are also closed and there’s a shortage of fuel and food.
Thousands of Libyans have left their homes in search of safety. At the beginning of August, 5,000 to 6,000 people reportedly crossed into Tunisia each day -- prompting Tunisian authorities to close the border. Some international organizations have pulled their employees from Libya and many countries have closed their diplomatic posts because of the violence.
Magdalena Mughrabi, a researcher at Amnesty International, told Al Jazeera in early August that it's unclear how many civilians have been killed or injured in the fighting. "Yet activists tell us that dozens of homes have been damaged by rocket attacks, mortar shelling and anti-aircraft weapons," she said. "It is extremely hard to establish which side is causing damage because the shelling is reckless."
Smoke billows from buildings during clashes between Libyan security forces and armed Islamist groups in the eastern coastal city of Benghazi on Aug. 23, 2014. (ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/Getty Images)