TOBRUK, Libya – Opponents of Islamists dominated the key inaugural session of Libya's new parliament on Monday, underscoring the decisive defeat suffered in recent elections by factions of political Islam who previously led a majority.
In the weeks leading up the session, Islamic militias -- armed wings of Islamic factions and cities' allied to them like Misrata -- launched a violent offensive, battling with rivals in the capital Tripoli and overwhelming much of the country's second largest city, Benghazi. Opponents accuse Islamists of pushing the country closer to a civil war to make up for their election losses. Islamists say they are battling remnants of the old regime of longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
"They lost their minds after the popular rejection was huge in polls," said independent lawmaker Faraj Najim, in charge of a logistical committee in the new parliament. "But the bottom line is: this is not about ideology. It's a fight over the cake, over power."
Since Qaddafi's downfall and killing in a 2011 uprising, the nature of the struggle in Libya took on several layers, where cities, ideologies and tribes are all intertwined.
Libya's army and police have been left shattered, and instead of dismantling the militias, successive interim governments have depended on them for restoring order temporarily. But government funding to the groups only boosted their numbers and power. When the first post-war parliament was elected in 2012, politicians began using militias to pressure it to pass laws they favored.
Armed groups that originated from the coastal city of Misrata allied with Islamic political factions, creating a formidable alliance that controlled a strong force on the ground -- the very fighters that launched a wide offensive in the capital as Islamists lost heavily in the last election.
Other armed groups like those originally from the mountain town of Zintan allied with a non-Islamist political grouping headed at one point by liberal-minded former premier Mahmoud Jibril. These militias, known as QaaQaa and Sawaq, have controlled the airport ever since Qaddafi's overthrow, becoming a center of power in the capital.
Meanwhile, in Benghazi, Islamic militias including extremist ones like Ansar al-Shariah have been accused of carrying out a wave of assassinations, kidnappings and bombings of army troops. Residents have staged dozens of demonstrations demanding the militias' dismantlement.
The uneasy balance of power in the capital, and the stalemate in Benghazi crumbled when renegade general Khalifa Hifter announced a campaign in May to rid the country of Islamist militias and parties, in an open offensive where allied forces launched airstrikes against the militias' compounds. The election results appeared to have tipped the balance for good.
Islamic militias and their allied factions reacted by launching their own offensives, one on the Tripoli airport and another to take Benghazi.
Weekslong battles left the country's main airport largely destroyed; volleys of shells and Grad rockets hit eight oil depots filled with millions of liters of fuel, setting them ablaze and leaving columns of black smoke in the sky. Shells hit residential areas, displacing thousands of families who were already struggling with a fuel and food shortage. Diplomats, foreigners and Libyans fled the country, with tens of thousands crossing overland into Tunisia because of airport closures. More than 230 people have been killed and nearly 1,000 injured.
Ansar al-Shariah, the group Washington considers a terrorist organization and accuses of orchestrating a 2012 assault that killed four Americans including the U.S. ambassador, participated in the Benghazi offensive. In two weeks' time, the militias swept into city, blowing up the security headquarters, taking over main buildings and checkpoints and squeezing Hifter's forces out into eastern and southern districts. The Red Crescent has retrieved dozens of bodies buried under the rubble of the main army barracks.
Though the winners of the June election were known, the extent of the Islamists' setback had been unclear until now, since lawmakers ran as independents and their party affiliations were not known. Monday's opening session showed just how much they had lost.
Because of the violence in Tripoli and Benghazi, the session was held in the eastern city of Tobruk, an anti-Islamist stronghold and militia-free zone.
The mere fact that the parliament was unable to convene in Benghazi, "shows the challenges facing Libya by ongoing fighting between armed groups and extremist ones," said Hesham Youssef, speaking to the deputies as a representative of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
According to the official count of Libya's House of Representatives, 170 of 188 elected lawmakers attended the session. An Associated Press reporter at the scene saw a total of 144 deputies take an oath of office. Mostly because of instability, 12 seats remain empty as no vote was held in their corresponding regions. It was not immediately possible to clarify the discrepancies between the two accounts.
Najim said that around 10 percent of those elected were Misrata candidates and Islamists, and did not attend.
Those boycotting also included the former head of parliament, Nouri Abu-Sahmein, an Islamist-leaning politician, who refused to attend the session in Tobruk, insisting that it be held in Tripoli.
"Libya is not a failed state," maintained newly elected parliamentarian Abu-Bakr Baeira as he addressed his fellow deputies and called for help from the international community. "If the situation were to get out of control in Libya, the whole world will suffer." Baeira is among the top advocates for a federated system where Libya's three historical regions enjoy a degree of self-rule.
In Tobruk, Moein Borhan of the now-evacuated United Nations mission to the country warned it faced a "dark tunnel" if fighting didn't stop.
"The worst case scenario now is if Libya is torn to pieces while groups fight each other and the nation is sent into diaspora," said former health minister Fatima Hamroush. "Scenes of smoke covering the skies of Tripoli are very painful," she said.