Fathi Bashagha vows to step up fight to end assault by Haftar’s forces
By Patrick Wintour
A fear among key members of the UN security council of taking on the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Egypt has allowed the three countries to carry out a wholesale breach of the UN weapons embargo to Libya, one of Libya’s most senior ministers has warned.
Widely seen as the most influential figure in the UN-recognised Government of National Accord, based in besieged Tripoli, Fathi Bashagha vowed step up his government’s fight to end the assault on Tripoli by east Libya’s strongman, Khalifa Haftar.
In an interview with the Guardian, Bashagha, Libya’s interior minister, said he backed a wholesale programme of economic reform to reduce the country’s outsized public sector, measures to localise resources across the country, and the integration of militias into the regular security services.
Haftar has been bombarding the capital since April, leaving the GNA frustrated at the lack of effective western support for what they insist is a government committed to democracy and human rights.
Bashagha named the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Jordan as repeatedly breaking the arms embargo, saying: “Some great nations on the UN security council seem to live in fear of these small nations. In the last five years, we have noticed a change in the international community – a lack of international credibility and a refusal to keep their word.”
Pointing to Russia’s role in Libya, he said: “We see a nation forming a private security firm to come and fight on their behalf.” Estimating the number of Russian Wagner group mercenaries at 1,400–2,000 fighters, he said: “They are Russian nationals and [ultimately] answer to the Russian government. Russia has a big project, not just in Libya, but throughout Africa.”
World leaders met in Berlin in January to agree a 56-point peace plan for Libya, but since then a shaky ceasefire has collapsed, the arms embargo has been ignored, a drone war continues over Tripoli, the UN special envoy, Ghassan Salamé, has resigned in despair and an oil blockade mounted by Haftar’s backers has deprived the Libyan government of $3bn in revenue.
But Bashagha put the overall cost of Haftar as much higher to the Libyan people: “He has cost Libya $36bn in lost revenue, and printed a parallel currency in Russia that has only led to a fall in the value of the dinar for everyone.”
He questioned why some countries, including France, continued to support Haftar. He said: “He wants to rule Libya as a dictatorship of the kind that previously existed. He accuses the whole of the west of Libya of being the Muslim Brotherhood, militias and terrorists, and that they have controlled all of the resources of the Libyan people. All the accusations that you could make up, he does make up, and yet he himself says one thing to the international community and then does the opposite. Haftar never committed seriously to the ceasefire, even if he pretended otherwise.”
He said: “The GNA is now under immense public pressure to push Haftar’s forces away from the capital. We don’t believe Haftar will stop shelling Tripoli, so we do not think we have any solution apart from pushing him back.”
He added that, with the recent rebalancing assistance from Turkey, “We are not stuck militarily. We have enough forces and power to push him back.”
Many in eastern Libya claim that the underlying cause of the conflict is a dispute over the distribution of Libya’s oil revenue between east and west by the central bank. Bashagha said: “We have to distinguish between the east of Libya and Haftar.”
“It is true that some people in the east do complain about marginalisation. They feel Libya’s wealth is not being distributed fairly, but if you go to downtown Tripoli and get off the main roads, there is no tarmac. People are facing the same difficulties as people in the east. There is no proper infrastructure. If you go to the mountains in the west, people still receive their water through tankers driving up the hill.”
“The whole of Libya is suffering from the lack of fair distribution of wealth, so we need to find a system for the budget to be distributed in a less centralised way.”
He also said a reformed banking and public sector system was essential. At present, the ministry of interior alone has a staff of 280,000 throughout the country. “All these people’s salaries get paid by my ministry, even some of the fighters who fight with Haftar are paid by the GNA. We need a completely reformed system to change the economy. Most of the budget is being eaten up in salaries. The government has 1.7 million employees and that means 22bn dinar (about $16bn) is spent every year on salaries. The civil war has led everyone to head to the government to be paid.”
He admitted that some of the militias were involved in extortion and blackmail to win contracts. He said in the case of the powerful Tripoli militias: “If they want to integrate as individuals, accept the training, show loyalty to the state, then they can be integrated in the police, military or the civil service.”
Patrick Wintour – Diplomatic editor, The Guardian