Libya's political crisis deepened on Tuesday as some presidential candidates met in Benghazi to discuss how to tackle a collapsing electoral process that was meant to help end a decade of violence and chaos.
The meeting is the most prominent of several rounds of backroom talks over recent days between candidates, factions and foreign powers about delaying the vote and whether an interim government can meanwhile continue in power.
Rival armed groups mobilized in Tripoli early on Tuesday, closing roads in the south of the capital, with schools phoning parents to pick up their children.
The presidential election was meant to take place this Friday, but without any clear agreement on rules, and with bitter disputes over the eligibility of major candidates, the process has stalled and cannot go ahead.
Hadi al-Sagheer, head of parliament's election committee, said by phone the vote would have to be delayed because there was no longer time to carry out preparatory steps, though no postponement has yet been formally announced.
Candidates, factions and foreign powers involved in Libya are discussing the length of a delay, whether basic changes need to be made to rules and the vote's legal basis, and whether to replace the interim government or form a breakaway administration.
The group meeting in Benghazi, including eastern commander Khalifa Haftar and the former interior minister Fathi Bashagha from Misrata, are aligned against the interim prime minister, Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah, who is a rival candidate.
The interim government and the election process were created last year under a U.N.-backed roadmap to end the turmoil that followed the NATO-backed uprising that ousted Muammar Gaddafi.
Dbeibah had promised when he was appointed not to run for office. His opponents say he should not run in the election because he has been able to use state spending to attract votes.
Haftar's candidacy is controversial in western areas after his 14-month assault on Tripoli from 2019-20, which destroyed much of the city. Another prominent candidate, Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, is also unacceptable to many Libyans.
Security tensions in Tripoli, where armed groups have surrounded major state buildings since last week, show the risks of the political crisis aggravating existing disputes among rival military forces.
While the rows are primarily local at present, major groups with footholds in various cities of western Libya are taking sides in the crisis, meaning any clashes could rapidly spread.
"At this stage it's more of a local dynamic about dislodging enemies and capturing land," said Emadeddin Badi, a Libya analyst with the Atlantic Council.
"But it could evolve into something a lot bigger," he said, after alliances and rivalries among factions had crystallized over recent months.
"I left my home this morning and found myself among dozens of military vehicles," said Mohammed Ali, a 40-year old state employee in the Ain Zara district of Tripoli.
"My sister phoned me to ask her to pick her up from school because the principal told all parents to collect their children," he said. "If there are no elections, there will be a war."