AFRICANGLOBE – Trucks fitted with anti-aircraft cannon, troops and cement roadblocks protect the five-star hotel in Tobruk that is now the surreal last bastion of Libya’s fugitive parliament.
Holed up in the Dar Al Salam seaside resort and pretending that all is normal, elected legislators debate laws and plan the future from the eastern city where they fled last month after losing control of Tripoli and much of the country.
A thousand kilometres away in the capital, a rival parliament sits, shunned by the international community and made up of members of an earlier assembly whose mandate has expired. It is making its own decisions, taking over ministries and staking a competing claim to rule the country.
Three years after NATO missiles overthrew and brutally lynched Muammar Gaddafi, Libya is effectively divided, with two governments and two parliaments, each backed by rival militias.
After weeks of fighting in the summer, an armed faction from the western city of Misurata took over Tripoli, driving out fighters from the city of Zintan in the east who had set up camp at the international airport following the fall of Gaddafi.
The conflict makes Western leaders fear that Libya is sliding closer to another civil war, far from the stable democracy they had hoped to achieve when they backed the 2011 uprising.
Now, having found shelter with their families, bodyguards and aides in Libya’s easternmost major city, Tobruk near the Egyptian border, the beleaguered MPs in Tobruk attempt to conduct business as usual.
Enjoying international backing, deputies have thrown themselves into their work, discussing public finances or approving measures such as the country’s first antiterrorism legislation.
But in reality, the Tobruk MPs and their government can do little to enforce anything outside their limited enclave. The Misurata group have set up their own parliament in the capital, reinstating the old General National Congress and naming a cabinet that also claims legitimacy.
Unlike the Tobruk-based parliament, the Misurata alliance, linked to Islamists, has consolidated its position by taking over departments such as the foreign ministry and state television.
The Tripoli administration, calling itself the “National Salvation Government”, has initiated a flurry of activities, such as announcing aid for families in need, to shore up its position.
Libya’s top Islamic authority, under control of the rulers in Tripoli, has denounced the elected assembly as a “Tobruk parliament” that makes “dangerous” decisions by calling on the outside world for help.
The conflict is part of a wider struggle between competing tribes, cities, Islamists and more moderate forces, which all helped topple Gaddafi but are now using their guns to grab power and a share of the oil wealth, the largest in Africa.
For some MPs, Tobruk is not just somewhere to work but the last safe place in Libya.
“I’m getting threats,” said Eissa Alarabi, an MP from Benghazi, where pro-government forces have been battling Islamist militants for months.
“I have brought my family to a safe place,” he said, struggling to make heard above the sounds of other MPs’ children roaming through the reception hall.
The MPs’ stay in Dar Al Salam hotel resembles an all inclusive holiday package. They and their families get three meals a day, paid for out of Libya’s US$47 billion (Dh172.49bn) budget.
Officials from the parliamentary administration use a loudspeaker to alert MPs to sessions. When not meeting, MPs can watch themselves on TV giving interviews from a studio in the lobby next to a hairdresser.
Since the Misurata alliance took Tripoli, Libya has become fragmented. Parts of the west and centre are controlled by the Misurata forces, leaving the elected parliament and government a rump state in the far east.
In between lies Benghazi, which is being fought over by Islamists and pro-government forces. Libya’s impoverished and neglected south is largely left alone, ruled by tribes which also fight among themselves.