Libya’s PM Serraj outflanks his opponents with a clever media gambit
By Jason Pack
Libya’s internationally recognized Prime Minister Fayez Serraj has come up with a brilliant way to have his cake and eat it too.
On Wednesday evening, he announced that he plans to “hand over” duties as PM in late October. However, the current ambiguity of the international mediation process leaves the door open to his remaining as the acting head of state even after that period as competent bodies and individuals will not yet be in place at that time to take over from him.
This is likely to play as a media master stroke and may resuscitate his otherwise flagging fortunes.
He has actually copied his rivals in eastern Libya, who also claimed to resign their positions last week in the face of ongoing protests over power outages, but are likely to remain in place as well.
In his five years in power, Serraj has not been adept at capturing the news cycle to his advantage, but this time he may have just struck gold.
Serraj has been coming under significant pressure in recent weeks from within his own government, particularly from Misrata and its minister of interior, Fathi Bashagha.
They were thought to be seeking to replace him and blame him for the power outages, corruption, protests, and hesitant political decision making that have wracked Tripoli over the past months since the defeat of rogue Gen. Khalifa Hifter’s assault on the city this spring.
Faced with these threats, Serraj has been maneuvering to maintain his position, making controversial appointments to curry favor.
Serraj has likely only resigned because French President Emmanuel Macron and other major international players (possibly including Trump administration officials like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and MENA plenipotentiary Jared Kushner) were trying to force him into direct negotiations with Hifter in Paris.
This made Serraj’s position untenable as he could not be seen shaking hands with a warlord who has wantonly slaughtered innocents and gone back on pretty much all of his previous international agreements.
Serraj’s kabuki theater resignation is therefore an implicit rejection of any forced renormalization process with Hifter.
It also has significant implications for the international dynamics surrounding Libya’s conflict, as well as the country’s domestic governance institutions.
Essentially what we are witnessing is a struggle by two sets of international coalitions to control the mediation process.
Serraj has stated he will not work with the mediation axis made of France, Russia, UAE, Egypt but will insist on only participating in the axis of U.N., Morocco, Geneva, U.S., U.K., Italy, and Germany.
Serraj’s announcement serves as a way to alleviate the pressure on him (by giving the image that he is moving on and ready to embrace his retirement in London to be close to his daughter) while also leaving the door open to him remaining in position as long as it suits him.
Despite his resignation likely not taking effect immediately, it could still pave the way for negotiations to reform the Presidency Council (PC) into a three-member body.
However, there will likely be a power struggle among representatives of western Libyan groups to replace him, which could weaken the Government of National Accord (GNA) during broader negotiations even if Serraj stays on in a caretaker role.
Libyans have long demonstrated their lack of willingness to talk to each other, and hence the international community will be essential in any moves to create a new structure to replace Serraj and the current PC/GNA setup.
Serraj’s move and its mastery of modern media optics may have tipped the scales in favor of the U.N. process that he prefers and against the French initiative.
Jason Pack is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Middle East Institute and the Founder of Libya-Analysis LLC.