By Sudarsan Raghavan
Three months after pro-government forces pushed a renegade warlord out of the Libyan capital of Tripoli, infighting within the government now threatens to unravel it and plunge the country into the next chapter of chaos.
Powerful militias in the capital are exerting their influence, sensing an opportunity to grab power and wealth. Pro-government forces and political figures are turning on one another in an effort to gain supremacy in western Libya, according to analysts.
“Libya is witnessing a dramatic turn of events that underlines the urgent need to return to a full and inclusive political process,” the U.N. mission in Libya said in a statement over the weekend, calling for “calm, the application of the rule of law and the preservation of the rights of all citizens to peacefully express their views.”
After weeks without fighting, fresh tensions have exposed the underlying divisions and rivalries among militias, tribes and political figures that have plagued Libya since the ouster and killing of dictator Moammar Gaddafi during the country’s 2011 Arab Spring uprising and NATO intervention.
These competing ambitions had been set aside last year in a collective mobilization to defeat commander Khalifa Hifter, based in eastern Libya. Hifter, a dual U.S.-Libyan citizen and former CIA asset, had launched an offensive on Tripoli in April 2019 to try to topple the weak U.N.-installed government. Both sides eventually deployed foreign mercenaries, armed drones and heavy weaponry, escalating a proxy war that had drawn in half a dozen countries. In early June of this year, Hifter’s forces were driven away from the capital.
“As Hifter’s threats rescinded, we have seen the antagonisms between those groups once again rise, and the rivalries,” said Tim Eaton, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, who focuses on Libya.
The latest turmoil came less than two weeks after the Tripoli government, known as the Government of National Accord, or GNA, and the rival eastern government declared separate cease-fires. They called for a demilitarized zone in the contested city of Sirte, the resumption of oil production and a path to elections.
These goals were all welcomed by the United Nations, regional neighbors and Western powers tired of the conflict in Europe’s backyard. But like so many moments in Libya’s post-Arab Spring history, instability and violence are again on the rise.
Last week, large street protests erupted in the capital and in the nearby town of Zawiyah, prompted by a disintegrating economy, cuts in electricity and water supplies, and the government’s inability to stem Libya’s coronavirus outbreak.
The government, led by Prime Minister Fayez Serraj, declared a curfew ostensibly to prevent the demonstrators from spreading the virus.
When protesters defied that order, a pro-government militia opened fire with live ammunition and abducted at least six of them, according to Amnesty International. The United Nations, in its statement, said it was concerned “about the excessive use of force against demonstrators as well as the arbitrary arrest of a number of civilians.”
That violence prompted the powerful interior minister, Fathi Bashagha, to declare that his forces would protect the demonstrators and that they had a right to peacefully protest. But Serraj suspended Bashagha from his duties, announced a probe of his actions and assigned a force led by a top loyalist to oversee security in the capital. Bashagha, in a statement, welcomed the investigation but called for it to be televised to ensure transparency.
Bashagha’s sidelining follows reports of growing tensions with Serraj. The interior minister’s influence soared during Hifter’s 14-month offensive on Tripoli. The GNA’s primary international backers, especially Turkey and the United States, approve of Bashagha and his efforts to dismantle the militias that control the capital, including many that the GNA relies on for security and influence.
“Serraj is threatened by Bashagha, who he sees acting more like a prime minister,” Eaton said. He added: “Serraj is trying to reassert himself and take more leadership and push Bashagha back. That tension has been ongoing for a long time, but it is only coming to the fore because the threat from Hifter receded.”
Bashagha comes from the western coastal city of Misurata, whose well-armed militias played an outsize role in pushing Hifter’s forces out of Tripoli. Frictions between the Misurata factions and the Tripoli-based militias have existed for years, with both seeking to control the capital after Gaddafi’s death. After the suspension of Bashagha, demonstrations broke out in Misurata in his support.
“Bashagha was brought in as a minister largely because he is [from Misurata],” said Emadeddin Badi, a Libya expert and nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “Dismissing him now is kind of an affront to them.”
The United Nations, regional countries and Western powers are now trying to defuse tensions between Serraj and Bashagha. If Bashagha is formally fired, tensions between militias from Misurata and Tripoli could erupt. Even if he keeps his post, mutual distrust will linger inside the GNA, analysts said.
Tensions are also mounting elsewhere. In Sirte and other parts of the country, the United Nations says it has seen a rise in human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests and detentions. Online incitement is also increasing in a bid to “further divide Libyans,, increase polarization and tear at the country’s social fabric at the expense of a Libyan-Libyan solution,” the United Nations said.
And despite a lull in fighting between pro-government and Hifter forces, both sides have continued to receive weapons from abroad in violation of an international arms embargo, the United Nations’ senior-most official in Libya, Stephanie Williams, told the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday.
Since July 8, about 70 resupply flights and three cargo ships have been sent in support of Hifter, while an estimated 30 flights and nine ships have gone to western Libya to back the GNA, she said.
Using flight tracking data and satellite imagery, security analysts have documented the arrival over the past year of scores of military cargo planes from Russia and the United Arab Emirates, which have both supported Hifter. U.N. investigators have detailed this information in a report, which was first reported by the New York Times, and plan to present it to the Security Council on Friday.
Analysts say the turmoil inside Tripoli appears to be creating an opportunity for Hifter to revive his fortunes. Last week, Hifter’s self-described Libyan National Army, aligned with the eastern government, rejected Serraj’s cease-fire proposal, calling it a stunt. The LNA vowed to repel any attacks on Sirte, which is controlled by Hifter’s forces, and on Jufra, home to a major Hifter air base.
“While the GNA is busy with internal struggles, signs are increasing that [Hifter] is preparing for an offensive operation from bases in Sirte and Jufra,” tweeted Wolfram Lacher of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
Sudarsan Raghavan is The Washington Post’s Cairo bureau chief. has reported from more than 65 nations and territories. He has been posted in Baghdad, Kabul, Johannesburg, Madrid and Nairobi. He has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the 2011 Arab revolutions, as well as reported from 17 African wars.
The Washington Post
Serraj backs down over sacking his dominant Interior Minister
Faiez Serraj, Libya’s internationally recognized Prime Minister backed down yesterday from sacking Fathi Bashagha, his powerful Misratan Interior Minister. The humiliating climbdown came in the form of an official decree (584) yesterday by Serraj, lifting Bashagha’s ‘‘temporary suspension’’.
In turn, Bashagha read a prepared and clearly compromise statement in a video clip posted on both his Interior Ministry and Serraj’s government Facebook page.
In its statement, the Serraj government said that it had held an ‘‘accountability session’’ with Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha on Thursday about the demonstrations that took place in Tripoli during the past period, the role of the Interior Ministry in securing them, and in securing their non-penetration and abuses that some demonstrators have been subjected to.
The statement said that, after the meeting, which lasted for over five hours and was held at the Cabinet Office with only the Presidency Council members, Bashagha confirmed the cohesion of all state security institutions, and that they work under the leadership and coordination of the Serraj Presidential Council.
Bashagha explained that the Interior Minister’s compliance with the investigation in accordance with Presidential Council Resolution 562 confirms the work of the Minister of Interior under the leadership of the Presidential Council and respect for the state’s hierarchy and the discipline of its institutions under the rule of law.
Bashagha also stressed the Ministry of Interior’s continued integration, absorption and rehabilitation of the security and military force to enable it to perform its role within the security and defence integration programme, in recognition of its heroic role in defending the capital, Tripoli.
Bashagha stressed the commitment of state institutions to exercise their specific competences in accordance with Libyan legislation and to integrate in meeting the needs of citizens’’.
When Bashagha arrived at the Prime Minister’s Office, his loyal Interior Ministry forces surrounded the location as if to impose a siege. The message was later reaffirmed when his Ministry posted 18 photos of Bashagha ‘‘being welcomed (hailed?)’’ by his forces, some of which were in full combat gear.
The episode manifests the new post-Qaddafi and the new Skhirat / Libyan Political Agreement Libya. It is a Libya of militias with token civilian rulers all under the auspices of the international community.
The Bashagha incident highlighted the fact that Serraj is a token leader and that he has no power to sack his Interior Minister. Bashagha challenged Serraj to a public showdown where the administration’s dirty linen and skeletons in the cupboards could be aired. Serraj, his domestic and international backers and sponsors, chose to pass.
The photographs of Bashagha with his forces, in one of which he was clearly smirking with joy, show who runs western Libya. Serraj has made Bashagha a new populist hero in Tripoli and Misrata. Bashagha may have been reinstated as Interior Minister, but he might as well have been anointed as Libya’s real Prime Minister.
The international community: stability v progress
It is clear from the events of the last few days that what is good for Libyans is not necessarily what is good for the international community. The international community wants stability in Libya – at any cost. It simply wants an interlocutor, a person they know, they are used to and can and have done business with. This is not strange or new. Many Arab and developing world states have been ruled for decades by convenient friends of the western community.
Serraj has been in office, but definitely not in effective, progressive power, into five years now. Libyans’ needs and demands can wait another 5 years.
The fears of unknown change by the international community range from destabilizing the new Hafter equilibrium and reopening a window for continued and increased Russian (proxy?) influence.
Turkey, having, thanks to Hafter and his foreign backers, obtained a god-sent military, political and economic foothold in western Libya, did not want the applecart to be toppled. They want the continuation of the status quo and the hope of resumption of multi-billion stalled contracts.
Italy wants the continuation of an interlocutor in Serraj and Maetig and a continuation of the Libya’s control of the flow of illegal migration across the Mediterranean.
Meanwhile, into its fifth year, the Skhirat administration lives on while the lot of Libyans regresses. Five years on, power, water, mobile phone, internet cuts continue. Five years on, black-markets and queues for petrol, diesel and cooking gas continue. And five years on the cash crisis continues while healthcare and the fight against the spread of the Coronavirus regress.
This much was admitted by Acting UNSMIL head Stephanie Williams in her latest brief to the UN Security Council on Tuesday.
She warned that ‘‘All these elements are producing a fertile ground for social unrest across the country and confirm once more that the status-quo is simply unsustainable’’, and that ‘‘Instability is further compounded by degraded socio-economic conditions, fuelling popular unrest and threatening the fragile calm required to advance our security and political discussions’’.