Clashes break out in Tripoli

Khaled Okasha
Tuesday 22 Aug 2023

The sudden outbreak of clashes in the Libyan capital Tripoli this week has reignited fears for the fragile calm and political process in the country, writes Khaled Okasha


Clashes erupted on the evening of 14 August in a residential quarter of south-eastern Tripoli between two Libyan militia forces, the Rada/Special Deterrence Force (SDF) and the 444th Brigade, after the SDF had arrested Brigade commander Mahmoud Hamza at the Mitiga Airport earlier that day.

The forces traded barrages using medium and heavy weapons, and within hours the casualty count had reached 27 dead and 110 wounded. As the SDF fired at checkpoints and other positions manned by the 444th Brigade, the latter amassed its forces in the area, leading to further escalation. Before long, tanks and other armoured vehicles had descended onto the streets of the Libyan capital.

The fact that the SDF is affiliated with the Libyan Presidential Council while the powerful 444th Brigade is the main military/security arm of the Libyan Government of National Unity (GNU) has sparked conjectures over the causes of the sudden facedown between the two militias which presumably belong to the same political camp.

Given how quickly they resorted to force, the cause or causes probably go beyond the arrest of Colonel Mahmoud Hamza which was most likely itself a symptom of underlying tensions that had yet to surface. On Tuesday evening this week, the Council of Notables of the Souk Al-Jumaa area mediated a deal in accordance with which Hamza would be released to a neutral party the following day under the council’s supervision.

The GNU agreed to the arrangement, and it also pledged to cease all military operations, return forces to their barracks, and to assess the damage to public and private property and compensate the owners.

The Emergency Medical Support Centre that released the only documented casualty count of 27 dead and 110 wounded also reported that 234 families had to be evacuated from the vicinity due to the medium and heavy weapons used and that it had to set up three field hospitals to treat the wounded.

As the fighting escalated in south-eastern Tripoli, Libyan Minister of Interior Emad Al-Trabelsi created a “Security Room” charged with ending the clashes, restoring security as quickly as possible, and protecting and reassuring civilians in Tripoli and its environs in coordination with the Emergency Medical Support Centre and the other concerned authorities.

In an urgent measure to contain the crisis, the Interior Ministry deployed 420 security patrols from eight entities: the Stabilisation Support Service, the GNU Chiefs of Staff Forces, the Tripoli Security Directorate, the General Directorate of Security Operations, the General Directorate of Central Support, the Police, the Security Stations Service, and the Internal Security Service.

The sudden outbreak of clashes in the Libyan capital has reignited fears for the fragile calm that has lasted for many months and that all the stakeholders hope to use in order to press forward with the political process in the country. The situation in the capital is now fraught with dangers, not the least of which is the existence of multiple military/security entities of various affiliations, all of which could mobilise at any moment on the weakest pretexts in order to terrorise the inhabitants.

US Special Envoy for Libya Richard Norland is concerned that the armed violence of the sort that erupted in Tripoli this week could hamper the progress Libya has made in recent months. Similarly worrisome incidents occurred a month before in mid-July when tribes in Libya’s central petroleum area declared a blockade of the oil fields in southeastern Libya as well as of the artificial river that flows northward to Tripoli.

These actions were intended to pressure the authorities in Tripoli into releasing Faraj Bou Matari, the finance minister of the previous government who had been kidnapped upon his arrival at Mitiga Airport by one of the government’s military/security components.

The threat to cut off water to the capital and the blockade of a major oil field after armed protestors stormed it and forced the oil workers to halt their work rocked the Libyan oil market and sowed widespread doubts about the ability of the Libyan authorities to maintain security and stability, all of which deepens the uncertainty surrounding plans to hold elections in the country before the end of the year.

The latest flare-up of violence in the Libyan capital, only contained after claiming numerous casualties, came closer than ever to threatening the country’s central authorities, revealing the depth of the crisis in western Libya and the nature of the problems in the capital. The many armed militias there that are at the beck and call of their bosses and paymasters are functioning very much like a “deep state” whose force exceeds the sum of their individual parts.

This “deep state” appears to be ready to implode and to take everything else down with it should anything come into conflict with the interests of its constituent rival forces. The question arises of whether there is any other force or individual that can stand up to this problem at the heart of a very precarious situation that forebodes a more volatile future for Libya.

The writer is the general director of the Egyptian Centre for Strategic Studies (ECSS).


* A version of this article appears in print in the 24 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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