TOBRUK, Libya — Being a parliamentarian in Libya is a death-
Entissar Chennib’s car was blown up in the eastern city of Derna on election day in June. Another representative, Ali Omar Tekbeli, knows it is too hazardous to go home to the capital.
“I receive death threats almost every day, warning me never to return to Tripoli again,” he said.
With armed groups battling for control of Libya, the eastern town of Tobruk — with its well-protected natural port, close-knit tribal society and the absence of militias — has become one of the safest places to seek refuge. The city has become the unlikely center for a broad range of politicians, activists and military figures hoping to take back the Libyan state.
In August, Libya’s parliament moved to Tobruk, with members saying they were facing a constant risk of violence in the capital. Dozens of politicians, journalists and activists in Tripoli have been arrested, kidnapped or killed, a trend that has only intensified since a loose alliance of mainly Islamist militias going under the name of Libya Dawn took control of most of the city several weeks ago.
This port city of 200,000 was little prepared for its new role as a strategic hub for those in retreat. There are only five hotels, so the authorities initially rented a Greek car ferry to house the overflow, while they tried to find more permanent accommodations.
The previous Libyan parliament, dominated by members sympathetic to Libya Dawn, continues to meet in Tripoli even though the representatives were supposed to step down after the June election. Islamist politicians fared poorly in that vote, and the few who won elections have been boycotting the new parliament in Tobruk.
Many Libyans thought the lawlessness and violence that followed the 2011 uprising against Moammar Gaddafi would fade as the Libyan state was rebuilt.
Instead, militias that fought in the revolution have become more powerful than the state, and regional power struggles have intensified.In the eastern city of Benghazi, Islamist militias have been battling forces led by former Gen. Khalifa Hifter, who launched a drive against them over the summer and is allied with the parliament. More than 500 military and police officials have been assassinated in Benghazi since 2011, and the rate of mysterious slayings has only increased in recent weeks.
In Tobruk, the parliament is now trying to reconstitute the government in a safer place. Last month, Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni’s new government was sworn in. Earlier in the month, the parliament fired the head of the Central Bank of Libya after he refused to move to Tobruk or to make a budget payment requested by the new lawmakers. Saddik El Kaber, the bank chief, had tried to avoid siding with either Tripoli or Tobruk, and is contesting the legality of his dismissal.
Control of the Central Bank is critical, as it holds the foreign assets in Libya’s highly centralized economy, including more than $100 billion in foreign currency reserves and equity stakes as well as the money generated by oil. There are also plans to move the National Oil Corporation, the body controlling Libya’s extensive oil reserves, to the east.
Yet for the authorities in Tobruk, political and financial power ultimately hinge on the success of their military allies.
Ibrahim Madani, head of a fighting brigade from the western city of Zintan and a member of the forces that failed to hold Tripoli, was in Tobruk recently to consult with the military’s new chief of staff, Abdulrzag Nadwry, and members of the parliament. The topic of his visit was preparation for the ccounteroffensive against Libya Dawn forces in Tripoli that many people here say is imminent.
“The visit was successful, we got the logistical support we requested. There are some factions of the army that were lacking some equipment and weapons, so the equipment will be sent to us very soon,” he said.
Libya’s situation is complicated by the involvement of other countries in the region. In Tobruk, supporters of the parliament denounce what they say is backing from Qatar and Turkey for their opponents. The international airlines offer a clear sign of the alliances at work in Libya. Turkish Airways and Qatar Airways are the only two international carriers still flying into Tripoli’s Mitiga airport, a former military facility. (The city’s main airport was destroyed in fighting).
Prime Minister Thinni accused Qatar last month of sending three planes loaded with weapons to Mitiga airport. Qatar has rejected the charge.
On the other side, there are clear signs of Egyptian support for the groups in Tobruk.
When Islamist groups cut off aviation fuel supplies to Tobruk recently, Egyptians stepped in to fill the void. The only international flights in and out of Tobruk are to Cairo and Tunis.
There was a series of mysterious airstrikes against the Islamists of Libya Dawn near the Tripoli airport in August, and again in Gharyan, a town south of Tripoli, in mid-September. They are widely believed to have been carried out with the support of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, although both deny it.
Meanwhile, there is a steady flow of foreign fighters coming into Libya to join Islamist groups in Benghazi and Derna, many coming via Sudan.
Since taking the capital in August, Islamist forces have continued their drive westward, inflicting heavy losses on the Warshefana and Zintan militias, who back the new parliament. The Warshefana fighters had regained the upper hand by late September, recapturing the town of Azziziya.
The ultimate battle could be over Benghazi. Whoever wins control of the city could dominate Libya. Hifter’s forces have surrounded much of the town, but militias including Ansar al-Sharia — which is on the U.S. State Department’s terrorist watch list — and the Islamic State still control the center.
So far, Tobruk has been largely spared of violence, with the exception of a car bomb in May. That doesn’t mean people aren’t nervous, however, and security is tight. It is, after all, the supply base from which Hifter’s military offensive is being run. The buzz of helicopters patrolling the coast is constant.
Politicians in Tobruk hope the West will come to their aid. Faraj Hashim, a spokesman for the parliament, said that Western military assistance was critical to ousting Gaddafi in 2011, but the countries didn’t finish the job. The news that the Obama administration has declared war on the Islamic State is raising hopes here of more U.S. political support.
“There is no doubt that U.S. policy has not been clear enough, but when they announced war against terrorism in Syria and Iraq, this is a positive change,” Hashim said.