Former Libyan Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha was sworn in last week as his country’s new premier by the House of Representatives in what the parliament saw as a step toward rebuilding their embattled nation.
But hundreds of miles west, along the Mediterranean shore of a North African nation beset by conflict and crises for more than a decade, Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibah, another man who claims the title of prime minister, one still recognized by the international community, rejected the move as illegitimate.
Such has begun yet another setback for longstanding efforts to unify Libya, a country still living in the tumultuous wake of a rebellion backed by the U.S.-led NATO alliance to oust longtime leader Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011. His unceremonious execution at the hands of the opposition, streamed worldwide on the internet, was widely celebrated at the time as heralding the start of a new era for this strategically important North African country, one free from the strongman who dominated Libyan politics for more than 40 years.
Speaking to Newsweek, Bashagha made the case for his position as it comes under challenge by both Dbeibeh and Libya’s High State Council advisory body.
“The government I have formed came about as a direct result of the previous government’s failure to hold transparent elections,” Bashagha said. “I have committed to holding both presidential and parliamentary elections within the timeframe agreed upon between HOR and HSC.”
“Planning elections in Libya means launching a number of initiatives including national reconciliation, economic reforms and biometric systems to secure voter data,” Bashagha said. “These elections will take effort and collaboration, but I am committed to seeing this process through.”
Amid fears that the latest schism could return Libya to a period of active conflict only recently quieted in October 2020, Bashagha vowed not to resort to violence to impose his will, even if Tripoli refuses to concede.
“We will not take part in any violent acts,” Bashagha said. “It has been proven that the solutions in Libya come through political agreements and dialogue. I intend to pursue collaboration and transparency to move our country forward.”
In an effort to allay fears of such violence, Bashagha and Dbeibah’s teams met on Friday, but failed to reach a lasting resolution. And the recent mobilization of armed factions loyal to both sides has sparked fears the country may once again be plunged into civil war.
Though Bashagha’s mandate currently lies in the east, his own roots are in the country’s west, in the port city of Misrata, far closer to Tripoli. Once considered to be the trade capital of Libya, Bashagha himself worked in the import-export field after leaving the Libyan Air Force of the Qaddafi era.
As he was close with a number of Misrata’s armed factions, Bashagha backed the central United Nations-installed government, as it went to war in 2014 with the locally elected House of Representatives. That organization enjoyed the firepower of the influential Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army, along with varying degrees of support from Egypt, France, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, among others.
Bashagha remained for years in the camp of the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity, known until last March as the Government of National Accord, and accepted the position of interior minister in 2018. But his relationship with then-Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj soured, and Bashagha was suspended in August 2020 after his security forces were accused of firing on protesters during a demonstration in the capital.
Dbeibah has since outlined a plan to delay elections until June, but the House of Representatives has argued the Libyan premier’s term effectively expired when elections failed to transpire. Though Dbeibah still retains the U.N.’s recognition, frustrations in Libya continue to mount, and at least three ministers have already resigned from the Tripoli administration over yet another failure to form a lasting post-Qaddafi leadership.
Despite Qaddafi’s death having put a violent end to the self-proclaimed colonel’s reign more than 10 years ago, the “brotherly leader” still looms large in the national consciousness of a Libya lacking any enduring replacement.
Qaddafi’s ticket continues to spark controversy, having been rejected and then reinstated, as Libya continues to come to grip with its past, present and future in the absence of unified leadership.
Bashagha, for his part, told Newsweek he saw “several factors” contributing to Libya’s inability to recover from crisis since the elder Qaddafi was ousted, “the most important of which is Libya’s lack of infrastructure in some sectors.”
“This made the recovery period after the fall of the Gaddafi regime much longer than that of Tunisia and Egypt, for example, in addition to negative foreign intervention at times,” Bashagha said.
Looking beyond Libya’s borders, Bashagha said he looked forward to cultivating relations with the West, among others, restoring his country’s position as an oil and gas player, and working with all nations that do not meddle in Libya’s internal affairs.
“Libya has crucial partnerships with several countries including the U.S. and Europe,” Bashagha said. “For the first time in 10 years there will be a serious investment in the energy sector in Libya to raise production and contribute positively to the international market. There will be a clear strategy for cooperation with countries that respect Libya’s sovereignty and that do not participate in any negative activities inside Libyan soil.”
Both men have already survived apparent assassination attempts, Dbeibah just last month and Bashagha in December 2019 and February 2021. Now reports have emerged of militias loyal to both sides preparing for potential confrontation as Dbeibah refuses to cede power.
Dbeibah’s office did not respond to Newsweek‘s request for comment. Libya’s embassy in Washington said it was “unable to provide a comment” and did “not have the contact information for the Prime Minister.”
With further turmoil likely, the United Nations remains a key force in potentially resolving the dispute between the two men and their respective administrations. U.S. diplomat Stephanie Williams is in position to do so, serving as the Secretary General’s special adviser on Libya.
She told Newsweek, however, that this issue was a Libyan one, one that ultimately required a Libyan solution.
She indicated that, absent elections, neither the Tripoli or Tobruk administrations had a true mandate from a population longing to have its own voice heard, as evidenced by the enthusiasm expressed by citizens to actually participate in choosing their next leader for the first time.
“All of the current institutions in Libya lack popular legitimacy,” Williams said. “The only solution is through the ballot box, and this is the overwhelming demand of the Libyan people.”
As for Bashagha, who hopes to preside over this process, Williams stated that he was “a national figure and his achievements speak for themselves, including his service as Interior Minister in the previous government during which war was waged against the capital.”
Williams said she was offering to use her position to mediate in the dispute between Bashagha and Dbeibah in order to help finally usher in a new age of stable leadership that has eluded Libya since Qaddafi’s downfall.
“National reconciliation and transitional justice are key goals along Libya’s pathway to recovery,” she added, “after more than a decade of division, conflict and chaos.”
Tom O’Connor is an award-winning senior writer of foreign policy at Newsweek, where he specializes in the Middle East, North Korea and other areas of international affairs and conflict. He has previously written for International Business Times, the New York Post, the Daily Star (Lebanon) and Staten Island Advance.