Libyan protesters shout slogans during a demonstration against the presence of jihadist militias and in support of “Operation Dignity” and the formation of a national army and police in Tripoli on May 23, 2014. (Sabri Elmhedwi/EPA)

Although negotiations over the formation of a unity government in Libya are currently overshadowed by allegations about the UN mediator, the structural obstacle to any deal is and remains Libya’s fragmented political scene. Libya’s second civil war, which erupted in mid-2014, is often mischaracterized as a conflict between two camps, each with its own parliament and government. The reality is considerably more complicated. The actors in Libya’s toxic mix of conflicts include a plethora of largely autonomous local militias, a variety of jihadi groups, and regional powers backing their preferred Libyan clients. The two loose alliances that emerged in 2014 turned out to be fleeting phenomena. Over the past year, divisions in both camps have taken center stage.

Libya’s fragmented political scene has posed persistent obstacles to the U.N.-led talks to form a unity government. Trying to respond to the problem, the U.N. has sought to gain the buy-in of important local constituencies – rightly so, given that local conflicts are a crucial element of the struggles at the national level. Yet in their search for credible local representatives, mediators have faced increasingly fractious communities. Figures deemed local heavyweights suddenly lose grassroots support. The reason, I argue in a recently published article, is that four years of struggles over national power between elites claiming to represent their particular local constituencies have eroded local cohesion. The result is yet deeper fragmentation and higher obstacles to conflict resolution.

Localism was a central factor in the 2011 Libyan revolution. In the first weeks of the revolution, individual cities and tribes rapidly took positions for and against the regime of former dictator Moammar Gaddafi. Although these positions often concealed considerable local rifts and fence-sitting, they were quickly locked in as local unity became a matter of survival for revolutionary strongholds, and entire communities became stigmatized as regime loyalists. Military forces organized themselves at the local level and remained attached to particular cities or even neighborhoods, while local councils emerged to manage vital supplies and services and speak for their communities.

Following regime collapse, a succession of weak interim governments fell prey to the multitude of local interests, and revolutionary armed groups evolved into powerful militias that seized state assets and engaged in increasingly fierce rivalries. In the absence of central government authority, one may have expected local representative and decision-making structures to consolidate, local communities to close ranks against external threats and local armed groups to cement their hold over patches of territory. Instead, the fragmentation of the national political scene is now mirrored at the local level. Local elites are losing their key political resource: their ability to speak for their communities.

In many localities, a growing array of competing “councils” and “committees” are taking positions in national politics in the name of entire cities or tribes, turning a practice developed during the revolution into a parody of itself. Undiscerning observers may be fooled by the never-ending succession of conferences purportedly assembling the country’s tribes for particular political ends. The tribes are best understood as merely another arena for competition between political entrepreneurs at the community level: Even representatives of the same sub-section of a tribe often take diametrically opposed positions. This also applies to many of the countless initiatives by local notables to mediate conflicts – some of which have resulted in tenuous local cease-fires. Too often, however, increasingly fractious local elites have been unable to rein in local armed groups attacking other communities, despite the disastrous consequences of such acts for their own cities.

Take Misrata. This port city quickly united against attempts by regime forces to put down the uprising. The countless revolutionary armed groups that formed in Misrata were tightly enmeshed with the city’s well-established commercial elite. Misrata emerged from the revolution as a major power center, with cohesive local institutions, including those for the oversight of armed groups. However, as leading Misratan politicians aggressively pursued an agenda of continuing revolution in the post-Gaddafi era, the city’s elite diverged.

Revenge acts exacted by Misratan armed groups on neighboring communities in the final days of the revolution laid the base for future conflicts. In October 2012, Misratan politicians and armed groups led the charge to capture the neighboring town of Bani Walid, allegedly to seize fugitive former regime officials. In Tripoli, Misratan factions exerted political influence until withdrawing in November 2013, when a Misratan militia fired at protesters in Tripoli, sparking clashes that killed dozens. At home, there were growing disagreements over the role of the city’s revolutionary hardliners and armed groups, which had damaged Misratan business interests across the country.

The city closed ranks one more time, if only superficially and temporarily, behind the July 2014 “Libya Dawn” operation against positions in Tripoli held by militias from the city of Zintan, signaling an escalation of the conflicts into civil war. The offensive was launched by a handful of Misratan politicians and militia leaders who joined up with groups from Tripoli and Zawiya, claiming to defend the revolution against a planned coup by former regime elements. The bulk of Misratan forces joined the fray, with some reluctance, two weeks into the operation.

But as battlefield progress stalled in early 2015 and U.N.-led mediation efforts gained momentum, the façade of local unity crumbled. Several of the offensive’s Misratan masterminds now positioned themselves as architects of a compromise, provoking fierce attacks from their erstwhile allies. Some of the largest armed groups suffered internal splits after they negotiated ceasefires with their former enemies and were reviled as traitors by other local factions. Misrata’s hardliners backed the Tripoli-based government – whose current Prime Minister, Khalifa al-Ghwell, is from Misrata – while their local adversaries supported the U.N.-led negotiations. When the talks moved to potential candidates for a unity government, further rifts emerged among local proponents of an agreement.

Contrary to local politicians’ intentions, the repeated instrumentalization of local unity for particular political ends has left Misrata irreversibly divided.

Bani Walid’s path in Libya’s power struggles could not have been more different from Misrata’s. In 2011, the city served as a recruitment base for volunteers enrolling in Gaddafi’s counter-insurgency. Several of its notables featured prominently in the regime’s efforts to rally loyal tribal constituencies. An attempted uprising in the city was violently repressed, provoking a rift through Bani Walid’s social fabric and hardening the revolutionary fervent of those who lost family members in the crackdown. A small group of revolutionary fighters from Bani Walid reentered the city when it eventually fell, as one of the regime’s last bastions. Majority opinion in Bani Walid remained hostile to the revolution, which was widely equated with the defeat of their city and its tribe, the Warfalla.

Bani Walid’s revolutionaries were soon driven out. In their place, a group of local politicians established the so-called Social Council, which adopted a staunchly counter-revolutionary stance and claimed to represent the Warfalla tribe. The council, influenced by former regime officials from the city now exiled in Egypt, began holding conferences with representatives of other tribal constituencies branded as pillars of the former regime and losers of the revolution. In mid-2012, armed groups from Bani Walid seized several Misratans on nearby roads. The death of one of these hostages, shortly after his release following protracted negotiations with the council, triggered the above-mentioned mobilization of a Misratan-led coalition of revolutionary forces that captured Bani Walid yet again, following heavy fighting, in October 2012.

The units deployed to control Bani Walid were gradually forced out again, and Social Council members who had fled the city during the offensive returned. Bani Walid’s humiliating second capture further galvanized local resentment of the post-revolutionary order. But it also weakened the council, whose uncompromising stance some held at least partly responsible for the disaster. Changes in council leadership brought a shift to a less belligerent posture, and distance from former regime elements based abroad. No new counter-revolutionary conferences followed, despite intense lobbying by hardliners.

When tensions in Tripoli and Benghazi escalated into civil war in mid-2014, Bani Walid was too divided to take a position. Unlike many of the tribal constituencies with which it had previously sought to create a counter-revolutionary alliance, Bani Walid had not formed combat units and made no significant contributions to the “Army of Tribes” fighting with Zintanis against Libya Dawn. The Social Council has also been unable to use its ostensibly neutral position in the conflict to mediate between the warring parties and regain political influence. Hardliners on the council and in exile have blocked any rapprochement with Misrata, which is indispensable to any mediating role.

Riven by internal divisions, Bani Walid has failed to influence Libya’s ongoing power struggle.

In both cities, local elites adopted confrontational strategies in national politics to cement their own local position, invoking the need for local unity. That approach backfired, because it wrought havoc on their own communities for political ends that were increasingly less clear. Widening local rifts were the consequence, with hardliners torpedoing attempts at conflict resolution.

Variations of this pattern have played out across Libya. Gone are the clear-cut divisions of 2011, which required communities to take sides unequivocally. Since then, the options open to rival local actors have multiplied, while the conditions for consolidating leadership at the local level remain elusive.

The transitional governments were too disjointed to provide stable backing to the local players who chose to bet on them. Siding with either of the two governments contending for authority since mid-2014 has proven even less effective: Neither have any real clout or chance of gaining broad international support. The other options open to local actors are equally uncertain: supporting the negotiations for a unity government or rejecting both existing governments and the UN-led talks altogether. In addition to pervasive uncertainty in an ever-changing political landscape, local elites continue to see their standing decline, as they are unable to check the proliferation of armed groups and rising criminal activity in their communities.

The fragmentation of previously cohesive local centers of power not only complicates efforts to negotiate a way out of the current impasse but will also make it more difficult to implement an agreement once it is reached. The struggle to reestablish a single Libyan polity will be decided at the local level – and the current trajectory does not bode well for unity.

Wolfram Lacher is an associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. This post is adapted from the article “Libya’s Local Elites and the Politics of Alliance Building,” which was published online by Mediterranean Politics in October 2015, in the framework of SWP’s project “Elite Change and New Social Mobilization in the Arab World.”