Tripoli - Libya's new premier was on Tuesday challenging his rival, who refuses to step down, after deadly fighting between a rogue ex-general, who claims his forces represent the army, and Islamists in their Benghazi stronghold.
Former general Khalifa Haftar has exploited the political confusion to rally support among the public, politicians and the army, analysts say, after he unleashed an offensive in the eastern city last month to purge Libya of the Islamists he brands "terrorists".
"When the state is absent, whoever emerges will be considered the country's last hope," said Othman Ben Sassi, a member of the now-disbanded Transitional National Council, the political arm of the rebellion that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi's regime in 2011.
On Monday, as clashes raged in Benghazi between militants and forces loyal to Haftar, prime minister Ahmed Miitig convened his ministers despite the head of the outgoing government, Abdullah al-Thani, refusing to recognise him.
Last Wednesday, Thani said he would let the judiciary decide whether he should cede power to the new cabinet, citing appeals filed by MPs against the chaotic General National Congress vote in May that elected Miitig.
It took place days after gunmen stormed the GNC, the Islamist-dominated interim parliament, to interrupt an earlier ballot.
The supreme court is due to examine the appeal on Thursday, according to lawmakers.Rival coup claims
The GNC's vice-president, liberal MP Ezzedine al-Awami, called Miitig's installation as prime minister a "coup d'etat".
The Islamist-backed authorities have, for their part, accused Haftar of launching a coup and denounced him as an outlaw.
The dissident general denies this, saying he has no political ambitions and insisting, after thousands of Libyans rallied behind him, that he has a mandate from the people to pursue his offensive to crush "terrorism".
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has urged Libyans to fight Haftar and his so-called National Army, labelling him an "enemy of Islam".
Neither of the rival premiers has publicly endorsed the ex-army general's campaign, although they have both stated their determination to combat "terrorism", while stressing that all operations must take place within the law.
Reflecting doubts about Haftar's real intentions, Ben Sassi said the rogue general had already been preparing his campaign before the latest political crisis erupted in Tripoli.
"The division within the ruling elite and the total absence of the state in Benghazi has given him more influence and support, allowing him to replace the state using the regular army and even the air force," which has sided with him, he said.Benghazi violence
Miitig, a 42-year-old businessman from Misrata without political affiliations, is backed by the Islamists in the GNC, which liberals have largely boycotted for months.
He would be Libya's fifth prime minister since Gaddafi was toppled and killed in the Nato-backed uprising in 2011.
Miitig is due to lead the country to legislative elections on 25 June, with the new parliament replacing the GNC and forming a new cabinet.
Observers say he is backed by the Islamists in parliament, who consider him the best guarantor of their political survival ahead of this month's vote.
"The face-off between Miitig and al-Thani illustrates the showdown between the Islamists and the liberals," said Iyad Ben Omar, a Libyan analyst.
"Both of them are clinging to power with the elections expected to take place in just a few weeks, which proves that they are pursuing their own political agendas," he added.
On the ground, schools and banks were shut in Benghazi on Tuesday and the streets deserted after the worst fighting there since 76 people were killed in mid-May, when Haftar launched his "Operation Dignity".
Twenty-one people were killed on Monday, with hospital officials in the port city, the birthplace of the 2011 uprising, saying at least 11 soldiers were among the dead. Another 112 people were wounded.
The number of Islamists killed was not known.