CAIRO — Libya hurtled deeper into political chaos on Thursday when its Parliament voted to install a new interim government over the objections of the current prime minister.
The oil-rich North African nation was already in political limbo after its failure to hold national elections on time in December. The elections were supposed to end more than a decade of instability, which has plagued Libya since an Arab Spring revolt in 2011 overthrew the longtime dictator, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
“We’ll see a feud over who is the legal government,” said Claudia Gazzini, a Libya analyst for the International Crisis Group, “and we’re going to have institutional chaos for some time.”
Libya’s Parliament declared that the current government’s authority had expired after the planned elections collapsed without a new political road map. It voted unanimously for Fathi Bashagha, a former interior minister, to lead a new government.
But the current prime minister, Abdul Hamid Dbeiba, vowed to hold onto power and called the vote illegitimate.
The dispute seemed to set the country back to a familiar state of affairs: two rival leaders and a country divided in halves — east and west. The Parliament is based in the east, which is controlled by the militia leader Khalifa Hifter, while Mr. Dbeiba’s internationally recognized government is based in the capital, Tripoli, in the west.
“Today’s news. Libya has two prime ministers. again,” tweeted Anas el-Gomati, the director of the Sadeq Institute, a Libyan policy research center, after the vote. “Groundhog Day.”
It is the scenario that many Libyans, as well as Western countries that supported the electoral process, had dreaded. Instead of holding elections, which Western governments and the United Nations insist is the only way to stabilize Libya, the country is at risk of plunging back into war and dueling governments.
It was unclear whether many of the Western countries or other foreign powers with a stake in Libya, including Turkey, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates, would accept Mr. Bashagha as prime minister-designate. Egypt’s foreign ministry expressed confidence in the “new government,” but the United Nations said it continued to recognize Mr. Dbeiba’s leadership.
The election was to have replaced the current power-sharing arrangement — in which a prime minister leads the government with the help of a three-person presidential council — with a single president. Libyans and Western officials had hoped an elected president would have the legitimacy to push for a new constitution, banish the foreign mercenaries still lingering in Libya and establish one central bank and a unified military, among other institutions.
The power struggle was already generating violence, with the potential for more to come.
The Interior Ministry said Thursday that Mr. Dbeiba’s convoy had come under armed attack early Thursday, but that no one was harmed. Mr. Dbeiba’s son-in-law called the attack a failed assassination attempt.
The power vacuum has also prompted skirmishes between some of Libya’s many militias, a number of which nominally answer to the Dbeiba government in Tripoli, but each of which has its own agenda.
It has also made way for a resurgence of Islamic State activity, which had dropped off over the past year after a decade in which the terrorist group had taken advantage of the post-el-Qaddafi chaos to seize territory and launch attacks.
Nearly three million Libyans had registered to vote for the elections that were set for Dec. 24 before they were postponed indefinitely. About 2.5 million of them had picked up voter cards, signaling their intention to cast ballots, but the possibility of an election seems as far off as ever.
“The only way to resolve the crisis of legitimacy in Libya is through the ballot box,” Stephanie Williams, the top U.N. envoy to Libya, said on Twitter last month, repeating a message she has delivered again and again to Libyan politicians.
They do not seem to have listened.
Instead, analysts said, the purpose of Thursday’s parliamentary vote seemed to be to avoid having elections that could dent the power of the already powerful.
The Parliament did lay out a path toward new elections, but the intermediate steps it called for were so unrealistic that Libyans seemed destined for a fresh outbreak of instability and chaos instead of a chance to vote on their leaders.
Parliament’s choice for a new prime minister, Mr. Bashagha, enjoys the backing of eastern Libyan leaders bent on ousting Mr. Dbeiba, who has led the country since he was chosen last year in a United Nations-sponsored dialogue among the country’s many political factions.
Diplomats and analysts said Mr. Bashagha appeared to have struck a deal with Mr. Hifter, the military commander who dominates eastern Libya and who led an unsuccessful military campaign to capture Tripoli. They said Mr. Hifter gave his support in exchange for promises to award key government ministries to his allies and financing for his army.
Mr. Dbeiba, by contrast, did not wait for Parliament’s vote on Thursday to reject it, promising in a speech on Tuesday to stay in place until elections are held.
“We will not retreat from our role in this government, as we have pledged to the people, until elections are held,” he thundered in the speech.
But Mr. Dbeiba is angling for power no less than his rivals.
Though he pledged at first not to run for president, he reversed himself after it became clear that his populist moves, such as paying stipends to young people to help them get married, might give him a chance with voters.
Muhammad Raheel, 36, a Tripoli resident, said Wednesday that he had been hoping Libya would finally start to see some progress and development instead of political wrangling. But the politicians had gotten in the way, he said.
The political road map “has failed, and will keep failing, as long as failure is what guarantees their staying in power,” he said.
Mr. Dbeiba’s government of national unity took over last year after being selected by the 75 members of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, a U.N.-created body that brought together the country’s various factions to try to find a peaceful way out of the divisions. This interim government was supposed to pave the way for December’s elections.
Mr. Hifter retreated in 2020 and, for a while, a cease-fire held and the country slowly began to rebuild.
But as the planned elections neared, the entry of several polarizing candidates, including Mr. Hifter, Mr. Dbeiba and Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, a son of the former dictator, as well as arguments over the electoral law and the election’s lack of a constitutional basis, conspired to derail the balloting.
The plan adopted by Parliament on Thursday would require a referendum on a new constitution before Libya could hold a vote — a tall order, given the country’s track record of squabbling over constitutional changes.
On Wednesday night, several dozen Libyans demonstrated in Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli, demanding that both the Parliament in the east and the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli step down.
“We are already fed up,” said Jamal Ben Youssef, 49, one of the protesters. Both governments, he said, “robbed us” of the freedom to decide our fate.
“And that freedom,” he said, “was the most valuable thing we had.”
Vivian Yee reported from Cairo, and Mohammed Abdusamee from Tripoli, Libya. Nada Rashwan contributed reporting from Cairo.