The US called for calm in the Libyan capital on Wednesday as tension rose between the city’s fractious militias amid continued election uncertainty.
Libya’s presidential elections had been scheduled for December 24 but this date has been abandoned. And with the country unsure as to who will govern the country, Tripoli’s collection of private armies are braced for confrontations.
Militias have set up roadblocks and deployed their distinctive combat vehicles — pickup trucks with mounted machine guns.
“Now is not the time for unilateral actions or armed deployments that risk escalation,” said the US embassy in a statement.
US concern came the day after a similar warning from the UN Special Mission to Libya (Unsmil) said: “The current mobilisation of forces affiliated with different groups creates tension and increases the risk of clashes that could spiral into conflict.”
Their warnings highlight the control militias exert over the Libyan capital, which has no regular police or military force.
Columns of armed vehicles from competing militias are criss-crossing the city and sand barriers have appeared as units guard their territory. Fearing violence on the streets, schools have closed and sent pupils home.
The militias were first formed in the fight to overthrow former dictator Muammar Qaddafi in the 2011 revolution. Having won the war, and with regular security forces shattered, many of the militias became political forces.
They settled in Tripoli as self-appointed security forces and most are now on the government payroll.
Taking advantage of a decade of chaos in Libya, some militias have also become businesses, smuggling drugs, oil and migrants headed for Europe. In March, a report by the UN Panel of Experts said militias have become intertwined with government institutions.
“The continued infiltration by armed groups in state institutions, in particular by the Nawasi Brigade, Ghenewa and the Special Deterrence Force, unduly legitimises these groups and fosters competition within the security structure,” said the UN report.
“A common modus operandi of armed groups is to use recordings as blackmail to obtain coveted government positions, which give them access to power and money.”
The militias also impede general economic progress, their presence creating a chicken-and-egg problem for reformers: while the militias are around, there are no jobs for young men, with potential investors scared away. Consequently, young men without work flock to the militias for a guaranteed pay packet.
In their struggle for territory and power, the militias regularly fight each other, usually inflicting more harm on civilians than themselves.
In 2018, several days of fighting left 115 dead, many of them civilians.
Their most recent clash was in July, between two of the most powerful militias — the Special Deterrence Force and the Stability Support Service. The latter is made up of a collection of militias, one of a series of ever-changing alliances.
Tripoli residents circulate maps on social media showing the boundaries of the more than two dozen armed factions, but the maps are always in flux, with streets and compounds constantly changing hands.
Adding to the tension in the city is the presence of militias from Misurata, Libya’s third-largest city. Prominent among the Misratan commanders is Salah Badi, commander of the Al Samoud Brigade.
Late last week, he appeared on television in his trademark combat jacket, military hat and sunglasses to denounce the planned elections.
“There will be no presidential elections as long as our men are present. I agreed with closing all state institutions in Tripoli,” Libyan news agency Alwasat reported him saying in a Facebook post.
Mr Badi has previously compared himself to George Washington, noting that the American statesman led militias in the US war of independence against Britain.
But others take a different view. Mr Badi has been sanctioned by both the UN and the US, the latter accusing him of firing rockets into civilian areas of Tripoli.
Justifying his inclusion on its sanctions list, the UN reported: “Salah Badi has consistently attempted to undermine a political resolution in Libya through his support of armed resistance.”
Another effect of the chaos generated by the militias is to leave room for terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS to operate.
ISIS has periodically launched attacks in the city, hitting the election commission in May 2018 and the headquarters of the National Oil Corporation four months later. The lack of a unified security force in the capital impedes efforts to detect these terrorist cells.
Tripoli’s situation is in sharp contrast to eastern Libya, which is free of militia violence because security forces are arranged around Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army.
Much of the income of the militias comes from guarding state institutions in areas of the capital they control, and with continued uncertainty over who will govern Libya, the capital’s warlords are anxious to secure as much territory as possible.