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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

Libya’s tale of two parliaments

Three years after Nato missiles helped overthrow Muammar Qaddafi, Libya is effectively divided, with two governments and two parliaments, each backed by rival militias.
The members of Libya's elected parliament are staying at the Dar Al Salam hotel in Tobruk. They and their families get three meals a day, paid for out of Libya’s US$47 billion (Dh172.49bn) budget. Reuters
The members of Libya's elected parliament are staying at the Dar Al Salam hotel in Tobruk. They and their families get three meals a day, paid for out of Libya’s US$47 billion (Dh172.49bn) budget. Reuters

TOBRUK, LIBYA // Trucks fitted with anti-aircraft cannon, troops and cement roadblocks protect the five-star hotel in Tobruk that is now the surreal last bastion of Libya’s fugitive parliament.

Holed up in the Dar Al Salam seaside resort and pretending that all is normal, elected legislators debate laws and plan the future from the eastern city where they fled last month after losing control of Tripoli and much of the country.

A thousand kilometres away in the capital, a rival parliament sits, shunned by the international community and made up of members of an earlier assembly whose mandate has expired. It is making its own decisions, taking over ministries and staking a competing claim to rule the country.

Three years after Nato missiles helped overthrow Muammar Qaddafi, Libya is effectively divided, with two governments and two parliaments, each backed by rival militias.

After weeks of fighting in the summer, an armed faction from the western city of Misurata took over Tripoli, driving out fighters from the city of Zintan in the east who had set up camp at the international airport following the fall of Qaddafi.

The conflict makes Western leaders fear that Libya is sliding closer to another civil war, far from the stable democracy they had hoped to achieve when they backed the 2011 uprising.

Now, having found shelter with their families, bodyguards and aides in Libya’s easternmost major city, Tobruk near the Egyptian border, the beleaguered MPs in Tobruk attempt to conduct business as usual.

Enjoying international backing, deputies have thrown themselves into their work, discussing public finances or approving measures such as the country’s first antiterrorism legislation.

But in reality, the Tobruk MPs and their government can do little to enforce anything outside their limited enclave. The Misurata group have set up their own parliament in the capital, reinstating the old General National Congress and naming a cabinet that also claims legitimacy.

Unlike the Tobruk-based parliament, the Misurata alliance, linked to Islamists, has consolidated its position by taking over departments such as the foreign ministry and state television.

The Tripoli administration, calling itself the “National Salvation Government”, has initiated a flurry of activities, such as announcing aid for families in need, to shore up its position.

Libya’s top Islamic authority, under control of the rulers in Tripoli, has denounced the elected assembly as a “Tobruk parliament” that makes “dangerous” decisions by calling on the outside world for help.

The conflict is part of a wider struggle between competing tribes, cities, Islamists and more moderate forces, which all helped topple Qaddafi but are now using their guns to grab power and a share of the oil wealth, the largest in Africa.

For some MPs, Tobruk is not just somewhere to work but the last safe place in Libya.

“I’m getting threats,” said Eissa Alarabi, an MP from Benghazi, where pro-government forces have been battling Islamist militants for months.

“I have brought my family to a safe place,” he said, struggling to make heard above the sounds of other MPs’ children roaming through the reception hall.

The MPs’ stay in Dar Al Salam hotel resembles an all inclusive holiday package. They and their families get three meals a day, paid for out of Libya’s US$47 billion (Dh172.49bn) budget.

Officials from the parliamentary administration use a loudspeaker to alert MPs to sessions. When not meeting, MPs can watch themselves on TV giving interviews from a studio in the lobby next to a hairdresser.

Since the Misurata alliance took Tripoli, Libya has become fragmented. Parts of the west and centre are controlled by the Misurata forces, leaving the elected parliament and government a rump state in the far east.

In between lies Benghazi, which is being fought over by Islamists and pro-government forces. Libya’s impoverished and neglected south is largely left alone, ruled by tribes which also fight among themselves.

Misurata and Tobruk deal with other much like independent countries, with the Tobruk parliament requiring special entry permits for its area on top of the normal Libyan visa.

The Tobruk-based parliament broadly represents anti-Misurata, anti-Islamist forces. But the MPs also have differing visions for post-Qaddafi Libya, which makes it hard for the United Nations and other foreign mediators to find any kind of consensus.

The assembly should have 200 MPs but more than a third are missing. Violence prevented voting in some areas while elected lawmakers from Misurata and other cities refuse to attend or cannot reach the remote east.

The House had more than 160 members present when it convened in August but some have left, said Tripoli MP Ali Tekbali, blaming pressure on them from their communities.

Now it’s down to between 110 and 130 but sometimes even fewer.

The shrunken house has at times struggled to find common ground. Lawmakers needed two weeks to agree on a new government, with deputies shouting at each other during one particularly heated night

There is also confusion over whether the assembly has allied itself with Khalifa Haftar, a former army general fighting Islamists in Benghazi. Deputy speaker Ehmid Houma said the assembly rejected him.

“We are against all armed groups outside the regular forces,” he said.

But parliament has indicated a degree of support for the general with some deputies reluctantly accepting they would be doomed without him.

The Islamists “would have come to Tobruk and destroyed parliament”, said Fathi Al Gabasi, an MP. Mr Haftar has an airbase in Tobruk, helping army forces in Benghazi which lack heavy guns.

Mr Al Gabasi believes the Misurata side will agree to talks, but many lawmakers are preparing for a long stay in Tobruk, where they have rented apartments for their families and put their children in school.

Once a backwater, Tobruk now has 5,000 new arrivals, said Faraj Yassin, a member of the city council. Deputies, their entourages and the wounded from this summer’s fighting in Tripoli are packing the few hotels.

Flights to the city’s tiny airport are overbooked. A British company is building a high-security compound to accommodate visiting diplomats from Tripoli.

Spending their days in the lobby cafe dreaming of a better Libya, lawmakers such as Mr Al Gabasi are emailing Western ambassadors hoping for foreign mediation.

“I am optimistic that we can find a solution,” he said.

But others feel abandoned by the Western powers that backed the 2011 uprising.

“Nato left us with these people,” said Mr Tekbali, referring to the militias. He said the world should send weapons to help army.

He cannot go back to Tripoli after protesters hung an effigy of him in the centre of the capital.

“Misurata won’t leave Tripoli,” said Mr Tekbali. “You need to hit them.”

* Reuters