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Tense calm returns to Libya's capital a week after deadly clashes

A semblance of normality returns to Tripoli a week after supporters of a rival administration clashed with the UN-recognised government
Fighters loyal to the Government of National Unity are pictured in a street in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, on 30 August, 2022 (MEE/Islam Alatrash)
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Tripoli, Libya

Life on the streets of the Libyan capital appeared to return to normal on Friday, a week after clashes killed more than 30 people and sparked fears of a return to full-blown war.

Fighting erupted on 26 August when rival factions exchanged intense gunfire in Tripoli and several loud explosions rang out across the city.

The UN-backed Government of National Unity (GNU) said the 48-hours of fighting was "triggered by a military group firing randomly at a convoy passing in the Zawia Street area".

While the clashes have since subsided, heavily armed units continue to patrol the city. Residents spoke of a tense calm in Tripoli, telling Middle East Eye they were avoiding busy areas and restricting their movements in the event of further flare-ups.

Ahmed Alarabi, a 30-year-old resident living near Zawiya Street, said the intense clashes had left fears of further unrest.

"There were street battles in heavily populated neighbourhoods," he told MEE. "I've decided to leave Tripoli, as I'm afraid I might lose a family member after my neighbour lost his son in the clashes."

Fighters loyal to the Government of National Unity man a position in the Libyan capital Tripoli on 30 August, 2022 (MEE/Islam Alatrash)
Fighters loyal to the Government of National Unity man a position in the Libyan capital, Tripoli, on 30 August, 2022 (MEE/Islam Alatrash)

Sustained political wrangling 

Fears remain that sustained fighting in the capital would likely plunge Libya into full-blown war after two years of comparative peace.

The oil-rich country has been wracked by conflict since a Nato-backed uprising toppled and killed longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011.

Libya once had one of the highest standards of living in Africa, with free healthcare and free education, but since 2011 has seen frequent fighting and the emergence of several militant groups.

'Libyans... are losing hope that their country can be free of corruption and foreign influence'

- Jeffrey DeLaurentis, senior adviser to US mission at the UN

"I spent four hours waiting to get some gasoline. We're an oil-rich country and this is our situation," said Khadija El Bory.

"I am tired of this and we want to remove all the current politicians and head to elections."

The current standoff pits the GNU led by Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah against the administration of Fathi Bashagha, which is based in the east of the country.

Tensions have been brewing since December after the country failed to hold elections, with Dbeibah  - who was selected in an interim capacity to lead a UN-backed political transition - insisting he would only hand over power to an elected government.

In response, Bashagha has spent months trying to install his government in Tripoli.

Bashagha, who is backed by eastern-based military strongman Khalifa Haftar, attempted to enter Tripoli in May, leading to a shootout and his departure from the city. Since then, however, a series of deals have brought realignments of some armed factions within the main coalitions facing off around Tripoli.

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Anywhere but here

Enas Dakhil, a 38-year-old who lives on Zawiya Street with his family, said ordinary Libyans had nowhere to turn if fighting resumed.

"I would like to leave and be far from the clashes... but can't leave for anywhere else."

While Bashagha's prospects of seizing Tripoli appear badly dented, at least for now, his alliance with Haftar remains an open wound for many in the capital.

Libya crisis: Is Tripoli at the brink of another war?
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Bashagha was interior minister in 2019 when Haftar launched his year-long assault on the capital. He is now backed by the same parliament that took Haftar's side in the last war.

The US and some western powers have voiced concern over Haftar's close ties with Russia, which supports him with mercenaries from the Wagner group.

The role of the Wagner Group in Africa has been in the spotlight since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, with fears that it could further destabilise the region.

Earlier this week, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, a senior adviser to the US mission at the United Nations, gave a bleak assessment of Libya's future at a UN security council meeting.

"Libyans... are losing hope that their country can be free of corruption and foreign influence, that the armed forces can be unified, and that foreign fighters, forces and mercenaries will be withdrawn. They are deprived of basic public services while the powerful cut deals to divvy up hydrocarbon revenues in accordance with their own interests, particularly to militias controlled by various factions, robbing the Libyan people of their national wealth," he said.

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