After three years of chaos since Muammar Gadhafi’s fall, Libya is further crumbling into a failed state after Islamist-allied militias took over the capital Tripoli and other cities and set up their own government, driving out a parliament that was elected over the summer.
The militia takeover last month has raised alarm in the West. Among the militias are Islamic terrorists, including Ansar al-Shariah, which now rules the country’s second largest city, Benghazi. The group is blamed for the killing of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in a 2012 attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility in the city.
France’s defense minister in an interview published Tuesday warned that Libya is a “hub for terrorists” and called for international action, even talking of moving French troops to the borders.
Beyond fears of terrorists, many Libyans worry their country is on the verge of complete fragmentation.
Fighting the past month as the militias took over Tripoli and Benghazi drove more than 100,000 Libyans from their homes and some 150,000 foreign workers out of the country. Tripoli’s international airport was virtually demolished as rival militias battled to control it. During the fighting, both sides wildly bombarded residential neighborhoods and kidnapped civilians suspected of supporting their opponents, acts that Human Rights Watch this week said amount to crimes against humanity.
“Libya has entered the condition of a failed state. We are very similar to Lebanon in the 1980s or Somalia,” said Libyan analyst Ezz Eddin Ukail, speaking from neighboring Tunisia. “We are at the doorstep of a civil war.”
Now the oil-rich North African nation has two rival would-be governments. One, based in Tripoli, has been declared by Islamists backed by the might of an umbrella group of militias called Libya Dawn, which controls the capital.
On the other side, the parliament elected in June — which is dominated by anti-Islamist politicians — was forced to flee to the remote eastern coastal city of Tobruk, near the Egyptian border more than 900 miles from Tripoli. There, it is setting up its own government, led by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni and backed by the weak and shattered military and a few militias.
All around the country, cities, towns, tribes and ethnic minorities are now choosing sides, raising the possibility of greater conflict. Across much of the west, militias running most cities have thrown their backing to the Islamists in Tripoli, but the cities’ populations are divided.
Meanwhile, neither government can actually rule. The Tripoli militias control ministry buildings — but bureaucrats and ministry employees have largely ignored their calls to come to work, and there is no one to make decisions.
“We have ministries without ministers. There is no one in power, no budget,” said Adel Sunallah, the head of the Culture Ministry’s media office. “The government is in a state of paralysis.”