The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Libya’s exiled government is living inside a car ferry

Islamist-supporting Libyans wave national flags during a protest against the Tobruk government on Aug. 15, 2014, in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. (Mahmud Turkia/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)
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Last month, Libya's elected government was forced to flee the capital, Tripoli, and take shelter in Tobruk, a port city near the border with Egypt that was once the site of a long battle between Allied forces and the Nazis in World War II.

Like the Allies, Libya's parliament-in-exile is somewhat under siege — so much so that it has been compelled to find accommodation in a Greek car ferry moored at Tobruk's docks. As the Guardian reports, the 17,000-ton hulk, typically used to convey vehicles between Italy and Greece, is the temporary residence for dozens of lawmakers in need of sanctuary. The Guardian's Chris Stephen writes:

The mood on board is sombre. An escalator, switched on only for important guests, heads up above the car deck to restaurants and bars with bright lights and almost no people. Children of the parliamentarians who have fled with them play in the corridors while clusters of officials and women in shawls cluster around the tables, where they are served Pepsi and orange juice by the bemused crew in immaculate white uniforms.
"It is unusual, yes," says one steward. "The Libyans are very polite. We are here one week, maybe we stay months, we don't know."

That uncertainty echoes the larger chaos gripping the country, which is in the midst of its worst political crisis since a rebellion toppled the regime of dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 2011. As WorldViews detailed here, months of fighting between Islamist militias and more-secular forces have led to the emergence of two rival governments: the legislature elected in June that's now taking refuge in Tobruk and a rump parliament dominated by Islamists in Tripoli. A U.N. special envoy arrived in Tobruk on Tuesday in an attempt to give legitimacy to the officials clustered there.

Neither assembly has much real power, though. The real players in Libya are a constellation of feuding militias that earlier had worked together to bring down Gaddafi.

Many observers are convinced that what's taking place is an Arab proxy war: The Persian Gulf state of Qatar is backing a coalition of Islamists, who under the name of Libyan Dawn sit in Tripoli and hold sway in a number of other major urban centers; meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates, with Egyptian help, has been supporting those warring with the Islamists, including Khalifa Hifter, a rogue general whose anti-Islamist offensives have involved airstrikes and intensive gun battles with enemy militias in Tripoli and the eastern city of Benghazi.

Hifter's ties to the government in Tobruk are tenuous. In recent weeks, his forces have suffered setbacks in clashes with Islamists in the environs of Benghazi, Libya's second city. All the while, Libya's lawmakers look on, wondering how far their authority can extend beyond their floating abode.