By Heba Saleh & Andrew England
When the head of Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord suspended the interior minister from his duties at the end of August, militias in Tripoli celebrated by firing weapons in the air.
But two days later, when Fathi Bashagha flew back to the city after returning from a visit to Turkey, rival militias gave him a hero’s welcome and paraded in convoys through the streets.
Under pressure from the UN, Turkey and the other foreign powers that back the GNA, Mr Bashagha and Fayez al-Sarraj, who heads the government, patched up their differences and the minister was reinstated.
But the public rift and scenes of rival armed groups on the streets highlight the fragility of the alliance that underpins the GNA and threatens efforts to forge peace in the divided north African oil exporter, analysts and diplomats warn.
Libya is broadly split between rival administrations: the GNA, which governs the west, and an eastern-based parliament aligned with renegade general Khalifa Haftar, who wants to seize power across the country. But all factions are dependent on militias that have exploited nearly a decade of chaos to fill the vacuum.
Although in Tripoli they helped protect the city after Gen Haftar launched his offensive on the capital in April 2019, they have for years been accused of behaving like criminal gangs, engaging in extortion and plundering state funds. At times they have turned their guns on each other.
In June, GNA forces, mostly militias backed by Turkish drone attacks, finally repelled Gen Haftar’s 14-month-long military offensive against Tripoli. Gen Haftar’s offensive had united rival armed groups from across western Libya.
These included battle-hardened forces from Misurata, Mr Bashagha’s home city which is a political and military power in its own right. But, once the danger receded, divisions started to appear.
“This is totally the wrong time for the GNA to start infighting,” said a western diplomat. “But it was predictable that it was going to happen and it was predictable militias would start shooting each other because they’ve lost their external enemy.”
It was predictable militias would start shooting each other because they’ve lost their external enemy Western diplomat The GNA declared a ceasefire in its conflict with Gen Haftar’s forces on August 21 that was welcomed by the UN and western capitals.
On the same day, Aguila Saleh, the speaker of an eastern parliament aligned with the general, also called for a ceasefire. The moves sparked hopes that a political process leading to peace could advance. But GNA infighting or a break with Mr Bashagha that could anger his powerful allies in Misurata would be a setback for the government and threaten fragile efforts at peace.
“The risk was that Sarraj would lose credibility not only internationally but domestically as well,” said the diplomat.
Any collapse of the GNA or a fresh round of fighting between western militias would also add another layer of complexity to what has morphed into a proxy war drawing in regional and international powers.
The UN-backed government is armed and supported by Turkey, which has also sent thousands of Syrian mercenaries to fight alongside its forces.
Gen Haftar has received weapons, military equipment and logistical support from the United Arab Emirates and Egypt. Russian mercenaries from Wagner, a company believed by western intelligence to be used by Russia’s GRU military intelligence service, have also bolstered his firepower.
The split within the GNA burst into the open when armed men from the Nawasi militia in Tripoli, which is loyal to Mr Sarraj, fired weapons to disperse peaceful protesters angry at government corruption, electricity cuts and the failure of its war-ravaged health service to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Libya has reported some 21,000 cases and 339 deaths from the disease.
Mr Bashagha, who sought to rein in militias after fighting between armed groups rocked Tripoli in 2018, angered Mr Sarraj by stating publicly that the civilian police under his command would protect demonstrators.
That led to his suspension and a flurry of appointments by Mr Sarraj aimed at placating Misurata by giving positions and powers to others from the city.
While the reinstatement of Mr Bashagha has closed the breach for now, Wolfram Lacher, senior associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said the cracks were likely to reopen.
“These are struggles over ministerial appointments and over control of turf in the security landscape of Tripoli. They were already there before Haftar’s offensive, when Bashagha was at loggerheads with militias in Tripoli.”
The west’s Libya policy is strengthening its adversaries Describing the Nawasi as “a mafia notorious for links to corrupt figures in the administration”, Mr Lacher argued that giving Mr Bashagha “a free hand” against militias linked to corruption would weaken Mr Sarraj.
“The two have now stepped back from the brink, averting a showdown, but they are likely preparing for another round,” he said.
The splits in the GNA come at a dangerous moment as the warring parties have built up their forces around the Haftar-held strategic city of Sirte in the centre of Libya’s coastline.
Since the ceasefire, the general’s forces have already fired Grad rockets at GNA positions in the region in an apparent bid to provoke a confrontation, diplomats say.
“Haftar is dangerous because he doesn’t like this present environment, this kind of no war, no peace,” said a western diplomat. “He’s looking for something to happen, because he knows with the military build-up in the area . . . it could happen. In this case he would come back to the front line.”
Heba Saleh is the Cairo and North Africa Correspondent of the Financial Times.
Andrew England is the Financial Times Middle East Editor. He was previously Middle East and Africa news editor. Prior to that, he spent 17 years based in the Middle East and Africa as a foreign correspondent. His posts included Southern Africa bureau chief Abu Dhabi bureau chief and Middle East and North Africa correspondent.