Libya's instability deepens as Islamist militias seize Tripoli airport

Reports suggest that Libya could be headed toward a prolonged civil war, with Islamist militias controlling the airport in the capital and the parliament forced to meet in the eastern city of Tobruk.

Aimen Elsahli/REUTERS
A damaged aircraft is pictured after shelling at Tripoli International Airport August 24, 2014. Unidentified war planes attacked targets in Libya's capital Tripoli on Sunday, residents said, hours after forces from the city of Misrata said they had seized the main airport.

After nearly a month-long fight, a coalition of Islamist forces and fighters from Misrata known as Dawn of Libya captured Tripoli’s airport over the weekend, raising the prospect of a prolonged civil war.

More than three years after the fall of former dictator Muammar Qaddafi, the Guardian reports that “the weekend’s developments threaten to tilt the country across the line from troubled post-Arab spring democracy to outright failed state.”

The fighting and sustained shelling have killed hundreds in Tripoli. Thousands of Libyans have fled their neighborhoods, and Western countries as well as the UN have closed their diplomatic missions. Fighting in Benghazi, in the east, has also left that city at a standstill with both its airport and seaport closed.

The Associated Press reports that Islamist militias, now calling themselves the Dawn of Libya, gained influence after the fall of Qaddafi because they were used to maintain order, with no strong military or police force able to step into the void.

Dawn’s gain has essentially left Libya with two governments battling for control. Islamist groups lost power in parliament after June elections. The elected government and its internationally recognized parliament, is now meeting in the eastern city of Tobruk due to security concerns. Islamist fighters now control much of the capital. The AP writes:

The fighting on the ground has mirrored a political standoff between Islamists and the outgoing parliament they controlled, and anti-Islamist groups who control the newly elected parliament. Each considers the other illegitimate.

After claiming control over the airport, Dawn of Libya called on the outgoing parliament to convene in the capital to take "the necessary measures to protect state sovereignty." On Sunday, the speaker of the outgoing parliament, Omar Hmeidan, said the body will convene until it hands over power to the newly elected deputies.

Further inflaming the situation, the newly elected parliament described the Dawn of Libya militias as "outlawed" and "terrorist groups" who fight to undermine the legitimacy of the state.

The BBC’s Rana Jawad thinks Dawn’s seizure of the airport is a symbolic win at best.

[A]s long as Libya’s airports, oil terminals, ports and other key institutions are run by militias on either side of the divide, nothing has really changed on the ground. It won’t until the state takes control, and it is nowhere near doing so.

The New York Times reports that both sides in the current battle see their fight as “part of a larger regional struggle,” but that it is difficult to discern the distinctions in their outlooks.

The ideological differences are blurry at best: both sides publicly profess a similar conservative but democratic vision. What is clear is that Libya is being torn apart by an escalating war among its patchwork of rival cities and tribes. 

Dawn now controls three airports, raising concerns that the group could launch attacks outside of Libya. Dawn has blamed Egypt and the United Arab Emirates for airstrikes against the group.

“The Emirates and Egypt are involved in this cowardly aggression, we reserve the right to respond at the opportune moment,” said Ahmed Hadia, a spokesman for Dawn, according to the Guardian.

Many are also worried that regional, roaming militias, including Ansar al-Shariah, the group involved in the attack on the American mission in Benghazi in 2012, could exploit the current fighting for their own benefits.

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