Libya's Legitimacy Crisis

The Danger of Picking Sides in the Post-Qaddafi Chaos

A fighter from Zintan brigade watches as smoke rises after rockets fired by one of Libya's militias struck and ignited a fuel tank in Tripoli Courtesy Reuters

While much of the world’s attention has been fixated on the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Libya has been tearing itself asunder. Its airports lie in smoking ruins, foreign diplomats have fled, and its once outspoken civil society has been cowed through a spate of assassinations.

Libya’s chaos has been variously portrayed as a contest between Islamists versus more secular factions; between younger “revolutionaries” versus older technocrats and military officers of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime; or between two rival towns in the west, Misrata and Zintan. Libya’s conflict is all these things. At its core, however, the fighting is about two centers of power -- consisting of town-, tribe-, and militia-based networks -- vying for the mantle of legitimacy in a country devoid of any workable institutions. And therein lies the conundrum. Over the past six months, these multiple factions have coalesced into two rival camps that have each staked equal claims to authority.

There are now two governments in Libya. One is in the eastern city of Tobruk, backed by the rump of the elected parliament, the House of Representatives (HOR). The other, based in the capital, Tripoli, has taken de facto control over ministries, relying on a handful of former members of the HOR’s predecessor, the General National Congress (GNC), to provide a veneer of legitimacy. Each is associated with a coalition of militia forces: those supporting the rump parliament have dubbed themselves Operation Dignity; those opposing it go by Operation Dawn. And each is flush with cash, heavy weaponry, and support from outside powers -- Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have backed Dignity, while Qatar, Sudan, and Turkey are purported to be backing Dawn. Contrary to some commentary, both sides have used force against civilians and elected institutions, and both show little sign of compromise.

Operation Dignity was born this summer as a military campaign led by Khalifa Hifter, a former general in the Libyan army, against Islamist militias in

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