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With militia standoff in Tripoli, Libya's democratic dream may be dying

John ThorneThe Christian Science Monitor

Libya is in more danger now than at any time since the 2011 uprising and war that toppled dictator Muammar Qaddafi.

Since then, a chaotic welter of regional militias has been competing for riches and influence. Some are also fighting to extend a version of Islamist governance across the country. That's been bad enough.

But two weeks of militia battles for control of Tripoli’s airport indicate that a new, more dangerous phase has begun. No ordinary turf war, the latest fighting could define Libya’s future and perhaps end its dream of democracy.

The violence is most likely a calculated attempt at politics by other means, says Karim Mezran at the Atlantic Council, a think-tank in Washington. Libya’s political landscape has polarized sharply in recent months between Islamists who have dominated the interim parliament and their non-Islamist rivals. Militias have broadly lined up behind each of the camps. 

A slow-motion breakdown in Libya’s democratic transition has shaped this face-off. The interim parliament, elected in 2012, dithered for months on deciding how to draft a constitution, while pressure from militias rammed through a controversial law that bars Qaddafi-era officials from politics, benefitting Islamists. Public anger with interim authorities’ inability to keep order has mounted steadily.

A watershed moment occurred in May, when former general Khalifa Haftar launched an offensive to oust hardline Islamist militias from Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city and de facto capital of the east, and vowed to oppose Islamists of all stripes across the country. Overnight, political and armed factions formed rival blocs.

Libya’s armed groups have pulled back from the brink many times. But this time the high stakes and sheer momentum suggest that only foreign mediation can restore order, says Mr. Mezran. “It is highly probable that, absent some form of international intervention, these clashes [will] escalate into an all-out armed confrontation."

Mediation?

For now, international players seems powerless to intervene. The United Nations’ mission to Libya, plus the staff of some embassies, among them the US embassy in Tripoli, have evacuated in recent weeks. Secretary of State John Kerry referred to “freewheeling militia violence" in explaining the evacuation.

Fighting at Tripoli’s airport and in nearby areas has left jetliners burned and gutted, damaged airport buildings and private homes, and set fire to fuel storage tanks that are now burning wildly and clouding the summer sky with an ominous pall. At least 97 people were killed through Tuesday, reports the BBC, and Tripoli is suffering power outages and a severe shortage of gasoline.

The embattled militias agreed to a temporary ceasefire on Wednesday to allow firefighters to try to quench the burning fuel tanks, Reuters reported. But it remains unclear how long the ceasefire might hold, or whether the blaze is under control. 

The proximate trigger for the surge in fighting is the apparent poor performance of Islamist politicians in June 25 elections for a new interim parliament, says Mezran. The new body is supposed to sit on Aug. 4. Attacks by Islamist-aligned militias, including the Misrata militia battling the Zintan militia for control of the airport, are probably intended to force a political settlement, he says.

“[The Islamist-leaning camp] is trying to force the political process to stop so that they can negotiate the outcome,” says Mezran, adding that non-Islamists also bear responsibility for the crisis by having backed Mr. Haftar. 

The big danger is that rather than spurring negotiations, fighting will spread.

Meftah Shetwan, a member of an advisory council to Misrata’s civilian leaders, says the city’s forces are fighting only to return Tripoli airport to central government control. “Our only agenda is for the legitimacy of an elected parliament,” says Mr. Shetwan.

For his part, Shetwan says that protracted conflict is unlikely. Misrata and its allies are talking with their rivals, he says, and in any event outnumber them handily and could swiftly defeat them. Yet the build-up of forces that Shetwan describes – he names militias from at least half a dozen cities that he says are allied with Misrata and have made their way to Tripoli – may be seeding the next phase of conflict.