Popular protests in the Libyan capital Tripoli and cities in western Libya last week were a manifestation of suppressed tensions within the Presidential Council and Government of National Accord (GNA). Quarrels burst into the open after simmering below the surface behind closed doors since April. This will likely realign loyalties or break existing fragile alliances in west Libya. This is a good litmus test of bonds within the alliance supporting the globally-recognised GNA, at a time when protests on the streets are demanding improved living conditions and holding officials accountable for corruption.
Bickering between the head of the Presidential Council, Fayez Al-Sarraj, and Minister of Interior Fathi Bashagha, who protested security breaches during demonstrations at Midan Al-Shuhada (Martyr Square), the largest square in Tripoli, between 23-26 August. Shots were fired and several youth protesters were arrested.
Since 20 August, demonstrations broke out across Libya and eventually reached the capital to protest declining living conditions, poor services, power and water outages, lack of cash in banks, fuel shortages, deterioration of health conditions due to Covid-19, rampant corruption in state institutions and general mismanagement of the country. Protests reached Tripoli after first starting in Sirte on 20 August by supporters of the previous regime who launched a movement called Rashahnak (We nominate you) in support of Seif Al-Islam Muammar Al-Gaddafi, son of the former president. The next day, protests spread to Al-Zaweya, west of the capital, condemning security steps taken by Bashagha at Ras Ajdir border crossing with Tunisia which is controlled by associates of the Berber city of Zuwara. They accused Bashagha of inciting strife between the cities in the western region.
Protests in Tripoli and Misrata began 23 August demanding better living conditions and prosecuting corruption cases. Demonstrations in the capital steadily grew in size, especially among youth, but by the third day protesters were divided along the political lines of organisers who pointed fingers at each other about supporting and opposing the GNA and demanding it resigns.
In Misrata, youth demonstrators gathered in front of the municipal square to protest living conditions and corruption, but did not reach the scale of protests in Tripoli. Demonstrations in other cities ended once numbers grew in Tripoli and after security clashes. In a statement on the evening of 23 August, Bashagha accused a group of armed men affiliated with official parties in the state of firing at protesters using machine guns and canons. Amnesty International accused Al-Nawasi Brigade of shooting into the crowd and kidnapping six protesters. Also known as the Eighth Battalion, Al-Nawasi is a component of the Tripoli Protection Force (TPF), a coalition of the four main armed groups in the capital which support Al-Sarraj.
Bashagha’s accusation against “armed groups affiliated to state agencies” was even more pronounced on 27 August, when he threatened to use force to protect civilians. This was an escalation of a quarrel among Al-Sarraj and his allies in Tripoli, before the latter decided to suspend Bashagha to face a disciplinary investigation which was postponed to Thursday. Bashagah insisted that his questioning be done publicly.
Bickering between Bashagha and Al-Sarraj is the tip of the iceberg of long festering rivalries and disagreements within the GNA between two camps since April, triggered by a financial dispute among cabinet members. Since then, more squabbles have surfaced revealing a deep rift in Tripoli. Al-Sarraj has the finance and economy minister on his side, along with the Supreme Judicial Council, TPF, Tripoli Military Zone and the State Audit Authority. In the opposing camp are Presidential Council deputies Ahmed Maetiq and Abdel-Salam Kajman, and the governor of the Central Bank, Al-Sadiq Al-Kabir, alongside Bashagha.
Arguments erupted because the war was suspended, financial disputes, and differing opinions on next political steps. One camp in the government wants to respond in earnest to calls to return to the political process supported by the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) and international and regional powers, to improve their chances in future arrangements that could be decided in talks. The other camp believes calls for relaunching talks are likely to fail and will not thaw the political and battle stalemate. Al-Sarraj and his cohorts want to fly solo and continue taking political and fiscal decisions while ignoring considerations on a political agreement.
Observers believe the quarrel between Al-Sarraj and Bashagha will likely undermine the alliance that exists in western Libya, which is only possible if the opposing force is unified in its vision and shares a common view in confronting Al-Sarraj. Al-Sarraj understands he is facing off with several opponents of varying political and social stripes, which gives him much room for political machination.
Bashagha was suspended from his post while on a trip to Ankara and after meeting Turkish Minister of Defence Hulusi Akar on 28 August, which several regional analysts viewed as Ankara abandoning Bashagha who was once considered Turkey’s closest ally in Tripoli. Since the signing of the memorandum of understanding about maritime operations, security and military cooperation in Istanbul between the Turkish government and GNA in late November, Al-Sarraj became the sole interlocutor with Turkey from Tripoli, since he heads the cabinet that is recognised by the global community.
Upon his return to Libya from Turkey, Bashagha tried to flex his muscles in front of Al-Sarraj, even though he submitted to the decision to suspend him, by demanding a public interrogation. He was met at Mitiga Airport by a crowd of supporters who accompanied him in an armed entourage that travelled across Tripoli from east to west until they arrived at Al-Nakheel village at the Janzour Tourist Complex, which houses many diplomatic missions in west Libya.
Although prominent leaders of armed groups in Misrata and police officers stood alongside Bashagha as a show of solidarity with him, key influential figures and actors in Misrata did not side with Bashagha. Instead, they criticised him for his caustic statements about the protests and demanded he first resign from the cabinet before pelting it with stones.
A key critic of Bashagha’s actions is veteran politician Abdel-Rahman Al-Sewehli, former chairman of the High Council of State, along with several prominent businessmen in the city who chose to align themselves with Al-Sarraj, who had started to take a series of steps to address protest demands. These included issuing several economic decrees such as disbursing financial aid to Libyan families, forming committees to tally the number of young graduates to train and appoint them to jobs in the public sector, which is already inflated and has the highest rate of employment in the world.
Other steps included military appointments, such as appointing commander of the Central Military Zone General Mohamed Al-Haddad, who is from Misrata, as army chief-of-staff. He also appointed Undersecretary of Defence Colonel Salaheddin Al-Namroush, from Al-Zaweya, as minister of defence, which had remained in Al-Sarraj’s grip for some time.
Al-Sarraj also appointed the commander of the Western Military Zone and head of the Joint Operations Room General Osama Al-Juwaili as chief of intelligence.
With these appointments, Al-Sarraj has at least struck a balance that would enable him to manage local alliances away from political blackmail — a step that paves the way for a critical cabinet shuffle that was delayed several times due to disagreements.
It appears that Bashagha stands alone in confronting Al-Sarraj, as the latter stripped the former of any leverage he could use in their dispute.
Developments abroad indicate that suspending Bashagha could be a move to pander to Moscow, which prefers not to deal with Bashagha in Tripoli due to his strong statements against Moscow and its position on Libya.
Bashagha had also urged the US to establish a military base in western Libya, and promised not to allow the Russians to gain a foothold south of the Mediterranean.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly