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Libya parliament names rival PM in challenge to unity govt

A file picture shows former Libyan interior minister Fathi Bashagha, who has been appointed prime minister by the country's eastern-based parliament
— Tripoli (AFP)

Libya found itself with two prime ministers Thursday, after its parliament named a rival to replace the existing unity government's chief Abdulhamid Dbeibah, threatening a new power struggle in the war-torn nation.

The House of Representatives, based in Libya's east, "unanimously approved Fathi Bashagha to head the government," the parliament's spokesman Abdullah Bliheg said.

The move threatened to deepen the struggle for control between the eastern assembly and the western-based administration of Dbeibah in the capital Tripoli, where experts warned of potential violence.

"Dbeibah is refusing to step down, so there is potential for some kind of conflict in Tripoli and beyond," Amanda Kadlec, a former member of the UN Panel of Experts on Libya, told AFP. "It could get ugly really fast."

It came hours after Libyan media carried unconfirmed reports that Dbeibah's car was targeted by gunfire overnight, without specifying whether he was inside the vehicle at the time.

Dbeibah, a construction tycoon appointed a year ago as part of United Nations-led peace efforts, has vowed only to hand power to a government that emerges from a democratic vote.

His administration had a mandate to lead the country to elections last December 24, but the polls were cancelled amid bitter divisions over their legal basis and the candidacies of several controversial figures.

Parliament speaker Aguila Saleh, who like Dbeibah and Bashagha had been a presidential candidate, has since spearheaded efforts to replace the unity government.

The assembly in the eastern port of Tobruk had considered seven candidates to lead the administration.

But shortly before Thursday's confirmation vote, Saleh had announced that Bashagha's only remaining challenger, former interior ministry official Khaled al-Bibass, had withdrawn from the race.

The live television feed cut just before the vote took place.

- 'Groundhog Day' -

Libya has seen a decade of conflict since the 2011 revolt that toppled dictator Moamer Kadhafi, leaving a patchwork of militias vying for control over an oil-rich country riven by regional divisions.

Experts warned that Thursday's vote threatens a repeat of a 2014 schism which saw two parallel governments emerge.

"Libya has two prime ministers. Again. Groundhog Day," Anas El Gomati of Libyan think tank the Sadeq Institute wrote in a tweet.

The 2014 crisis had seen a UN-backed unity government face off against the parliament, which is backed by eastern military chief Khalifa Haftar -- another candidate in the elections set for December.

In the run-up to the polls, Bashagha had travelled to meet Haftar, whose self-proclaimed Libyan Arab Armed Forces said Thursday it backed the decision of parliament.

In a televised address on Tuesday, Dbeibah vowed he would "accept no new transitional phase or parallel authority" and declared he would only hand over power to an elected government.

Bashagha and Dbeibah, both from the powerful western city of Misrata, have the support of rival armed groups in the Libyan capital and the surroundings.

Libya's Abdulhamid Dbeibah, shown on November 21, 2021

"Bashagha and Dbeibah both have deep connections across western Libya, and the militias will move with whomever they see as having power," Kadlec added.

"The Tripoli militias might also take a wait-and-see approach. Alliance-hopping is part of the playbook in Libya."

The UN, western powers and even some members of parliament have called for Dbeibah to stay in his role until elections, for which a new date has not yet been set.

Peter Millett, a former UK ambassador to Libya, said the main division now was "between the Libyan people -- who want elections -- and the political elite, who don't."

"The motivation of many MPs is to hang on to jobs and privileges rather than allow for a smooth process leading to elections," he told AFP.

"This seems like a decision taken to deprive the people of the right to vote by delaying elections even further and causing potential instability in Tripoli."

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