It’s flying under the radar, but the Libyan capital is shuddering through its worst violence since fighting first broke out mid-2014, while oil wars rage out east amidst signs of increased Russian involvement.
What does this battle for economic and political power mean for Libya’s civilians?
As a galaxy of militias battle for control of central Tripoli, residents cower from tank and artillery fire. For the city’s population of 1.5 million, the clashes come after two years of growing violence and deprivation as basic services fall apart.
Meanwhile, far to the east, the army of one of Libya’s three competing governments has recaptured two oil ports, al-Sidra and Ras Lanuf, seized by yet another militia earlier this month.
The ports’ recapture offers hope that oil production – along with gas, Libya’s only revenue earner – can revive. But who will control those revenues depends on an unresolved struggle between an elected parliament based in Tobruk, the UN-backed Government of National Accord in Tripoli and a third would-be administration, the National Salvation Government, also in the capital.
How did we get here?
Libya’s many militias have been sporadically clashing and wrangling for control of Tripoli (and the country) since the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, but fighting escalated after parliamentary elections in June of 2014. A group from Misrata, Libya’s third city, together with Islamists refused to accept defeat at the ballot box and coalesced into a militia alliance called Libya Dawn.
The fighters captured the capital from rival militias in seven weeks of fighting. Foreign embassies fled the country, the national airport went up in flames, and since then foreign airlines have stayed away from Libya, as have most foreigners. Even the UN judges the city unsafe and mostly works from neighbouring Tunisia.
The Government of National Accord was installed in Tripoli in March last year, with the UN predicting it would unify the country. Instead, it has failed even to unify Tripoli – its presidency members confining themselves to the city’s naval base as militia battalions rule the streets, including some allied with the National Salvation Government.
Such is the chaos of the last few days in Tripoli that there are no accurate figures for the dead and wounded from city hospitals, one of which, Habda, was twice hit by shellfire and set on fire on Tuesday and evacuated.
For citizens of the capital, the horror of street fighting adds to their daily want and compounds their security fears.
“The most difficult thing about life here is the uncertainty,” one Tripoli housewife, who requested to remain anonymous, told IRIN.
“My husband and son go to work each day, the kids go to school, and you hear the distant battles, you hear the latest kidnapping, you wonder: will they be safe?”
It’s true that for Tripoli, abnormal is becoming normal. The GNA has failed to get a grip on public services. The city endures power cuts that last for days, because generating plants break down or because fuel is seized by militias.
Loss of power in turn means loss of water from pumping stations. Besides, the city’s drinking water depends on a long pipeline from the desert interior, the so-called Great Man-Made River, which is now in dire need of maintenance.
But security concerns are paramount right now in Tripoli.
Beyond the tanks and the shelling and the clashes, avoidance of kidnapping has become an art form. Gagaresh, in the downtown area, is still a thriving hub for those with money, its coffee bars crowded, but even to there people are travelling to and fro in groups now to avoid abduction.
Appearances are important too. A student explained why he is careful not to clean his car or replace a cracked windscreen. “I want this car to look bad,” he told IRIN. “I don’t want a militia guy to see it. Then, maybe he’ll take it.”
In the east, home to the Sirte Basin, oil fields which produce the bulk of Libya’s income, forces controlled by strongman Khalifa Haftar – backed by Russia and Egypt and allied with the Tobruk government – have taken control of oil terminals from a group of militias from Benghazi.
Russian special forces are reported, by unnamed US and Egyptian sources, to be playing an increasing role in the oil-rich region, raising eyebrows in Western capitals, especially in light of Moscow’s Syrian exploits.
Libya’s eastern oil ports had been closed for the past two years thanks to a dispute over control and export, but Haftar turned them on – along with the revenue stream – when he captured them in September.
The writer filed this article for IRIN from Tunis