Libya’s central government has long had only a tenuous grip on the eastern city of Benghazi, but the bombing of the French embassy in Tripoli shows its control of the capital may now also be under threat.
The early morning car bomb devastated France’s embassy, wounding two French guards, in the most significant attack against foreign interests in Libya since September's deadly assault on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi.
The US ambassador and three other Americans were killed in the Benghazi attack leading to a lingering political row in Washington with Republicans accusing President Barack Obama’s administration of withholding information and the White House defending its handling of the issue.
In a blow to the Libyan government’s hope of asserting its authority after the 2011 war that ousted Muammar Gaddafi, the French embassy bombing, was the first of its kind in Tripoli. Both France and Libya called the attack a “terrorist act”.
“Given the events in Benghazi in the last year, it may not be that surprising that even areas where there is more state control are not immune,” a Western diplomatic source in Tripoli said. “People can’t just point to the east now.”
In the capital, the presence of state security forces is more evident than elsewhere - pick-up trucks bristling with weapons protect ministries or stand guard at roundabouts.
But the city of around 1.7 million people is not immune to violence - gunfire still often rings late into the night as armed brigades fight pitched battles against rival groups.
In the last month, the justice ministry was stormed by angry militia men, the prime minister’s aide was abducted and a car carrying the head of the national assembly was shot.
Foreigners have been targeted in everyday crime - car jackings and theft - but the city has been seen as relatively safe compared to the rest of the North African country.
“Security in Libya is related to the post-revolution status and the fact that the ministries of interior and defence are being rebuilt,” said Nizar Kawan, a national assembly member.
“The balance of power is not yet on the state's side even though it should have overall power in the country.”