TOBRUK Libya (Reuters) - 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 kilometers away across the desert in the capital, a rival parliament sits, internationally unrecognized 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 helped overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, North Africa’s major oil producer is effectively divided, with two governments and two parliaments, each backed by rival groups of armed men.
After weeks of fighting in the summer, an armed faction from the western city of Misrata 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 civil war, far from the stable democracy just across the Mediterranean from Europe they had hoped to achieve when they backed the uprising against Gaddafi.
Now, having found shelter with their families, bodyguards and aides in Libya’s easternmost major city, Tobruk near the Egyptian border, the beleaguered lawmakers attempt to conduct business as usual.
Enjoying the backing of the international community, deputies have thrown themselves into their work, discussing public finances or approving measures such as the country’s first anti-terrorism legislation.
But in reality, the Tobruk lawmakers and their government can do little to enforce anything outside their limited enclave. The Misrata group have set up their own parliament in the capital, reinstating the old General National Congress, and naming a cabinet that also claims political legitimacy.
Unlike the Tobruk-based parliament, the Misrata alliance, partly linked to Islamists, has consolidated its position by taking over departments such as the foreign ministry and the state television station.
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, now under control of the new rulers in Tripoli, has denounced the elected House of Representative as a “Tobruk parliament” that makes “dangerous” decisions by calling on the outside world for help.
The conflict is part of a wider struggle in Africa’s biggest oil producer 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.
For some lawmakers, Tobruk is not just somewhere to work but the last safe place in Libya.
“I’m getting threats,” said Eissa Alarabi, a lawmaker 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 himself heard while other lawmakers’ children roam through the reception hall. A large TV blares in the background.
The lawmakers’ stay in the Dar al Salam hotel resembles an all inclusive vacation package. They and their families get three meals a day, paid for out of Libya’s $47 billion budget. A cafe provides juice and shisha water pipes at a swimming pool next to a children’s playground.
Officials from the 70-strong parliamentary administration use a loudspeaker to alert MPs to sessions. When not meeting, lawmakers can watch themselves on TV giving interviews from a studio in the lobby next to a hairdresser.
Since the Misrata alliance took Tripoli, Libya has become fragmented. Parts of the west and center are controlled by the heavily armed Misrata 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.
Misrata and Tobruk deal with other much like independent countries, with the Tobruk parliament requiring special entry permits for its area on top of the normal Libyan visa.
The Tobruk-based parliament broadly represents anti-Misrata, anti-Islamist forces. But the lawmakers also have differing visions for post-Gaddafi Libya, which makes it hard for the United Nations and other foreign mediators to find any kind of consensus.
The assembly should have 200 lawmakers but more than a third are missing. Violence prevented voting in some areas while elected lawmakers from Misrata and other cities refuse to attend or cannot reach the remote east.
The House had more than 160 members present when it convened in August but some have left, said Tripoli lawmaker Ali Tekbali, blaming pressure on them from their communities. Now it’s down to between 110 and 130 but sometimes even fewer.
The shrunken house has at times struggled to find common ground. Lawmakers needed two weeks to agree on a new government, with deputies shouting at each other during one particularly heated night.
There is also confusion over whether the assembly has allied itself with Khalifa Haftar, a former army general fighting Islamists in Benghazi. Deputy speaker Ehmid Houma said the assembly rejected him. “We are against all armed groups outside the regular forces,” he said, sitting in the spacious hotel lobby crowded with visitors.
But parliament has indicated a degree of support for the general with some deputies reluctantly accepting they would be doomed without him.
“They (the Islamists) would have come to Tobruk and destroyed parliament,” said Fathi al-Gabasi, a lawmaker. Haftar has an air base in Tobruk, helping army forces in Benghazi which lack heavy guns.
Gabasi believes the Misrata side will agree to talks, but many lawmakers are preparing for a long stay in Tobruk, where they have rented apartments for their families and put their children in school.
Once a backwater, Tobruk now has 5,000 new arrivals, said Faraj Yassin, a member of the local council. Deputies, their entourages and the wounded from this summer’s fighting in Tripoli are packing the few hotels,
Flights to the city’s tiny airport are overbooked. A British company is building a high-security compound to accommodate visiting diplomats from Tripoli.
Spending their days in the lobby cafe dreaming of a better Libya, lawmakers such as Gabasi are emailing Western ambassadors hoping for foreign mediation.
“I am optimistic that we can find a solution,” he said.
But others feel abandoned by the Western powers that backed the 2011 uprising.
“NATO left us with these people,” said Tekbali, referring to the armed groups calling the shots. He cannot go back to Tripoli after protesters hung an effigy of him in the center of the capital.
Deputy speaker Houma said dialogue would solve the crisis but Tekbali says the world should send weapons to help the post-Gaddafi Libyan army.
“Misrata won’t leave Tripoli,” said Tekbali. “You need to hit them.”
Editing by Patrick Markey and Giles Elgood