Libyan Security forces vehicles patrol to secure the area where Libya’s parliament members are meeting, at the Crown Prince's Palace in Tripoli May 25, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)
Rival interim governments are disputing power in Tripoli less than four weeks before a general election, claiming control of Libya's huge currency reserves from oil and gas.
The power struggle is creating a quandary for foreign diplomats as the competing claimants trumpet their meetings as a vindication of their legitimacy.
Prime minister Abdullah al-Thani had announced his intention to step down earlier this year after an armed attack on his family but he is insisting that his successor should be chosen by a new parliament rather than its contested predecessor.
Prime minister Ahmed Miitig insists his election by the outgoing Islamist-led parliament, largely boycotted by liberals for months, was valid and he has formed a rival administration which met Thursday in a Tripoli luxury hotel.
"We have got ourselves in a real bind," said analyst Salem al-Zarrouk.
"Which of the two governments is the central bank going to deal with, who is going to hold the chequebook and who is going to sign the deals with foreign and domestic firms?" he asked.
Libya's foreign currency reserves built up from past oil and gas earnings still stand at more than $100 billion, but they have been depleting fast from $132 billion last July.
A still unresolved rebellion for autonomy in eastern Libya has cut oil exports from 1.5 million barrels per day to just 240,000 bpd.
That has reduced earnings from $4.6 billion a month to just $1 billion, far short of the $3.5 billion the central bank says Libya needs each month just to cover imports.
"To vote in a government to run the country for less than a month and to put in its hands billions of dollars is virtual madness and looks like a deliberate ploy to complicate the situation," said fellow analyst Moataz al-Majbari.
"Ahmed Miitig must withdraw from politics immediately. His insistence on his claim to the premiership will only deepen the crisis," he said.
Miitig has repeatedly refused to give way, insisting he is determined to "serve my country even for a few minutes."
Zarrouk accused the Muslim Brotherhood and its more radical Islamist allies of seeking to install the nominally independent Miitig as part of "a last-ditch bid to hang on to power."
Analyst Mohamed al-Jebal said the 42-year-old businessman from Libya's third city Misrata should stand down to save his fledgling political career.
"What he's doing now is political suicide," Jebal said.
But Miitig's supporters in the outgoing interim parliament have been defiant.
Speaker Nuri Abu Sahmein has warned Thani that he could face criminal prosecution for his refusal to hand over the premiership in accordance with the vote in the General National Congress.
The GNC's legitimacy was thrown into question when it unilaterally prolonged its mandate, due to expire this February, until December, only agreeing to a June 25 election for a successor body in the face of mass protests on the streets.
But it still insists that its election in Libya's first-ever free polls in July 2012 gives it executive as well as legislative authority until then.
The power struggle in Tripoli has brought to a halt negotiations on reopening two key oil terminals which remain under blockade by rebels demanding autonomy for the east.
They want a return to the federal constitution which Libya had for the first 12 years after independence in 1951 with key spending powers in the hands of three regions.
And as the rival prime ministers square off in Tripoli, waiting in the wings outside Benghazi is a former general and longtime US exile whose forces have launched two armed assaults, backed by air power, on jihadists in the main eastern city.
Khalifa Haftar claims his forces represent the legitimate national army, and although he has repeatedly denied any political ambitions, his Islamist opponents accuse him of plotting a coup in Tripoli with the backing of liberals and their militia allies.
"Now we have two governments and pretty much two parliaments and two armies," said Suleiman Dogha, a former political leader in the 2011 uprising that toppled and killed longtime dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
"I fear that we will end up with two or three states."