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Power Struggle Rips Libya Apart

Power Struggle Rips Libya
Cadets of the “Saiqa” force (Special Forces) of the self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) affiliated with eastern strongman Khalifa Haftar take part in a graduation ceremony in tribute to the force’s late commander Wanis Bukhamada, in the eastern city of Benghazi, on January 20, 2022. Abdullah DOMA / AFP

Khaled Mahmoud

The Libyan political scene is in a new stage of conflict. Nowadays, there are two governments that fight to take over the power in the country. This conflict revived the institutional division that Libya had suffered from before the temporary National Unity Government took over in March 2021, headed by Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh.

A year after coming to the transitional authority formed at the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, the Dbeibeh government showed a strong desire to remain in power. That is despite the Parliament’s announcement of its dismissal and the installation of a new Cabinet.

The Parliament appointed Fathi Bashagha, Minister of Interior of the former Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord, to form the new “National Stability” Cabinet.

Wholesale pledges

The veteran militiaman Bashagha presented copious pledges in front of the Parliament to comfort the MPs regarding his policy as a potential candidate for the presidency. Despite pledging not to run for the coming elections, he tried to tickle their feelings by talking about a comprehensive program for conciliation and renouncing disputes.

The militiaman spoke about the importance of arms confiscation, providing employment opportunities for young people, and maintaining national sovereignty.

Bashagha did not miss the chance to attack the transitional unity government, accusing it of corruption and spoiling the elections. Moreover, he pledged that he and his government cede any jurisdictional immunity.

Cautions and concerns

Although he intended to announce his new government, taking over power won’t be easy for Bashagha and his Cabinet since Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh refuses to leave his position.

Bashagha has succeeded in establishing a vast network of relationships, including Egypt and Turkey, despite their conflict of interests. He has also succeeded in joining the camp of the Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces in the east. However, if the Parliament keeps ignoring the United States warnings about prejudicing Dbeibeh’s government, Bashagha’s government won’t get immediate international approval.

Concerns are expressed over the fights that might take place between the militias over power and authority, whose allegiance is distributed between Bashaga and Dbeibeh.

Dbeibeh, who has the United States and international support, won’t simply accept the idea of giving up his position to Bashagha, who aspires to the legacy of the late President Colonel Muammar Gaddafi after he participated in his overthrowing.

The Dbeibeh government was supposed to lead the transitional phase and hold presidential and legislative elections scheduled for Dec. 24, 2021. However, it was postponed, which caused the House of Representatives to consider it an outgoing government.

Dbeibeh had previously described the Parliament’s endeavours to overthrow him and install an alternative government as desperate. On the other hand, he emphasised that his government would continue its work until the power is handed over to an elected government.

The difference between Bashagha and Dbeibeh

Power Struggle Rips Libya
Milad Matouk (C), Transport Minister for Libya’s Government of National Accord, speaks during a press conference with Interior Minister Ali Fathi Bashaga (C-L) and UN special envoy for Libya and head of the UN Support Mission in Libya Ghassan Salame (C-R), at the capital Tripoli’s Mitiga International Airport on October 29, 2019. Mahmud TURKIA / AFP

While both Dbeibeh and Bashagha descended from Misurata, they are competing over power and control over its armed militias, just as the case is among the militias of Tripoli.

The difference here is that Dbeibeh is a former businessman who made his fortune during the Gaddafi era and had no close connection with the militia before coming to power. On the contrary, Bashagha is a veteran militiaman and had previously fought a battle to stay in his position during the Government of National Accord with the help of the Misurata militias.

Misurata, whose militias have always controlled the successive Tripoli governments since 2011, because most of its residents are of Turkish origin and an incubator for the Muslim Brotherhood, is facing a difficult test. The power struggle has been transferred for the first time to its backyard after it was previously managing it from a distance.

The Egyptian role

Cairo was one of the first regional capitals that immediately and clearly welcomed the decision of the Libyan House of Representatives to form the new government.

The Egyptian decision-makers chose Bashagha over Dbeibeh, although the latter had signed several agreements with Egypt, just as he had done with all the countries he sought to consolidate his relationship with, including Turkey, Algeria and Italy.

But the rise of Bashagha was not surprising to Cairo, which he secretly visited several times to meet with Aguila Saleh, Speaker of Parliament, and Khalifa Haftar, under Egyptian auspices. That explains his visit to eastern Libya and his sudden openness with its senior officials, coinciding with the official openness to Turkey.

Egypt played an important role in persuading Algeria and Tunisia not to oppose the overthrow of the Dbeibeh government. Egyptian President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi had a telephone conversation with his Algerian counterpart, Abdel Majid Tebboune, on the eve of Bashagha’s election.

Until the last moments, the Algerians refused the dismissal of Dbeibeh’s Cabinet. That was clear in the dispute between Suleiman Shanine, Algeria’s ambassador to Libya, and Aguila Saleh, Speaker of Parliament, after their meeting at the latter’s headquarters on Feb. 2.

Saleh reported the Algerian ambassador’s confirmation of Algeria’s position in support of the Parliament as the only legitimate elected authority in the country, its respect for the right of the Libyans to choose their representative, and support for all decisions of the Libyan Parliament. Shanine, however, informed Algeria Press Service that “Algeria stands at the same distance from All Libyan parties, contrary to what was reported by some sources.”

The phone call between Sisi and Tebboune ensured the end of the Algerian opposition. An official statement by the official spokesman for the Egyptian presidency confirmed what he described as “a consensus of visions concerning the situation in Libya on the importance of strengthening the relevant Egyptian-Algerian coordination frameworks to achieve a major goal: to impel the will of the people. That is by supporting the institutions of the Libyan state, the current efforts to achieve security and stability, and preserve the unity and sovereignty of Libya.”

Sisi played an essential role behind the scenes, as similar contacts were held with Tunisia, Chad and Sudan to secure the regional consensus required to support the decisions of the House of Representatives.

On the other hand, the undeclared Egyptian-Turkish understandings contributed to this new political scene in Libya. It seemed that Turkey had agreed to stop supporting Dbeibeh in exchange for the openness of the Libyan East to Ankara. That was represented in the recent visit of the Turkish ambassador to Benghazi. Haftar did not object to the exchanged communications of the House of Representatives with him.

Mercenaries

Power Struggle Rips Libya
Libya’s interim prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah (R) and his Egyptian counterpart Mostafa Madbouly (L) give a joint press conference at the prime minister’s office in the capital Tripoli on April 20, 2021. Mahmud Turkia / AFP

With an army of Syrian mercenaries loyal to Turkey on Libyan soil, the possibility of them entering the crisis line between the Dbeibeh and Bashagha governments is possible, but it is also fraught with risks.

This fear is reinforced by intelligence about the stalled talks between Egypt and Turkey and the escalation of tension between Abbas Kamel, head of the Egyptian intelligence service, and his Turkish counterpart, Hakan Fidan, regarding Erdogan’s ambitions in Libya.

Thanks to its military forces stationed in several military bases inside and outside Tripoli, Turkey controls the mercenaries that it brought to fight for the Government of National Accord and prevent Haftar from conquering it in 2019.

As a result of the deterioration of the mercenaries’ financial situation and Turkey’s failure to pay their salaries, the possibility has increased that any Libyan party can purchase their services to ensure significant control over Tripoli and secure the government in the face of any military action.

If these mercenaries revolt against Turkey or shift their loyalty to a local party in Tripoli, the crisis is likely to lead to a new phase of military clash and bloody fighting.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights statistics, there are about 7,000 mercenaries from various formations of the “National Army” loyal to Turkey present in Libya. Their replacement continues in Libya, as their situation has become tedious; they spend their time in dormitories or training grounds.

The Western and American Position

While the Italians foresaw an imminent end for Dbeibeh, they did not back him up diplomatically and politically as the British did.

Italy maintained a neutral position between Dbeibeh and Bashagha to secure an easy channel when the conflict is resolved. In contrast, the United Kingdom ambassador denounced the House of Representatives for the removal of Dbeibeh and the inauguration of Bashagha.

On the other hand, the United States ambassador to Libya Richard Norland, who is currently positioned in Tunisia, refrained from declaring a clear position on this conflict. By this, she reflected the US administration’s uncertainty again in the Libyan affair.

Consequently, Israel spread misinformation about secret communications with Libyan parties, hoping to force Libya into a normalisation policy like its Arab neighbours.

Israel has a lot to offer, be it military or technologically. However, that depends on the presence of a strong government in Libya and that Egypt and Turkey do not object to Israel’s attempt to obtain a part of the Libyan pie.

The UN Position

Power Struggle Rips Libya
Stephanie Williams, Deputy Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Political Affairs in Libya, speaks during a press conference in the Tunisian capital Tunis on November 8, 2020. FETHI BELAID / AFP

The recent crisis reflected the receding role of the United Nations since the deposition of Gaddafi in 2011.

Although Dbeibeh assumed a position during the UN-sponsored Libyan Political Dialogue Forum in Geneva last year, the United Nations itself wasn’t represented during the event.

That failure is attributed to the absence of the Head of the United Nations Support Mission in Libya since the sudden resignation of Ján Kubiš after less than one year from taking office and one month before the Libyan elections last December before it was postponed.

Also, the Russian objection did not allow the UNSMIL to name a successor to Ján Kubiš. Therefore, in the meantime, Stephanie Williams, the ex-Chargé d’Affaires for the Libya External Office, is assuming the position of the Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on Libya, a position explicitly concocted for her to foil the incessant objections from Russia.

Despite the diplomatic workaround, Williams did not exhibit the same level of influence. The limited powers and the failure to name an official successor allowed the Libyan leaders to steer the Libyan affair away from the UN and the international community.

It’s safe to assume the UN is trying too hard to hold the stick from the middle despite recognising Bashagha as the prime minister-designate, which means a tacit approval of his remaining in the country’s political scene.

Williams met with Dbeibeh and Bashagha and refused to declare a clear position regarding their conflict over heading the government.

In a sign of low ambition, her first message to Dbeibeh and Bashagha was about the importance of all active parties and organisations working together within the political discourse and maintaining the highest levels of self-restraint.

The UN encouraged the Libyan leaders to put the interest of the Libyans and the 2.8 million registered voters as their first and foremost priority. Official statement from its spokesperson, Stéphane Dujarric, during a press conference in Geneva, stressed the need for Libyan leaders to move forward peacefully and transparently to preserve peace within Tripoli and beyond.

Searching for a Position

While searching for a position, Bashaga’s name echoed whenever a new government was on the horizon.

Baghaga was not satisfied as an MP, and he quickly boycotted all its sessions. He was always seen pursuing a position in government.

He ran for the National Security Council, which hasn’t seen the light of day. In October 2018, Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister of the Government of National Accord, signed a Cabinet reshuffle, and Bashaga succeeded Brigadier-General Abdussalam Ashour as the Minister of Interior.

In his new position, he proposed a controversial project to deal with the militias in Tripoli. He classified the militias based on their military power and security threat level, hoping to dismantle them.

However, the situation remained the same despite the United States embassy in Tripoli expressing interest in his plan.

Bashaga, who usually moves in a huge security convoy, pledged to eradicate all the militias, especially after claiming in February 2021 that he had been a target for an assassination attempt in Janzour, west of Tripoli.

However, the Stabilisation Support Authority denied Bashaga’s claim and accused his guards of assaulting its members. The government pledged to investigate, but the whole incident is now long forgotten.

Tension quickly boiled after Bashaga-affiliate militias swarmed the Martyrs Square in downtown Tripoli in an attempt to establish their presence.

This incident and his failure to become the new Minister of Defence in Fayez al-Sarraj’s government caused his relations with the latter, who sought to dismiss Bashagha from the position of Interior Minister, to deteriorate rapidly.

Bashaga sought refuge in Misurata militias and challenged al-Sarraj’s authority. His position was put on hold, and he was investigated. However, it lasted only a few days, and he came back accompanied by a massive parade for his militias in demonstration of power.

Ludicrous and Controversial Statements

Power Struggle Rips Libya
A file photo taken for the former Libyan Foreign Minister Mohamed Taher Siala (R) and former Interior Minister Fathi Bash Agha (L) while delivering a speech on December 25, 2018, following an attack on the foreign ministry. Mahmud TURKIA / AFP

In one of his press conferences in Tripoli, Bashaga claimed that the Libyan Intelligence Services, which he usually criticised for being unreliable, can breach the most invulnerable international intelligence bodies, including the Israeli Mossad itself.

An outlier in Bashaga’s already winding political career is his position from Khalifa Haftar, who he continuously feuded. However, when he finally met him in Benghazi with a delegation of presidential candidates, he turned a new leaf.

Bashaga realised if he wanted to be relevant on the political scene, Haftar must be an ally. It’s noteworthy that Bashaga was temporarily allying himself with Aguila Saleh, the chairman of the House of Representatives. They were both on the same electoral list, but they didn’t win the elections in Geneva.

The Militias Man

Bashaga built his reputation as a militiaman as a leader of the Hattin Brigade that originated from his hometown Misurata. And after that, he was the leader of the al-Marsa Brigade. Both militias were powerful and well-armed.

During Gaddafi’s deposition in 2011, he worked as an intelligence and security coordinator for NATO. That brought him inescapable shame among his constituents, and it went as far as calling him “NATO’s Fathi”. Another popular name is the “Al-Agalati” or Tireman because he works in the car tire business.

Bashaga, the ex-pilot in Gaddafi’s army, has no actual or practical military experience. However, he is about to achieve his ambition and pounce on the Libyan throne regardless of anything.

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