Libya: The art of compromise, as practised by Fathi Bashagha

By Sarah Vernhes
Posted on Monday, 2 May 2022 13:36

Libya's Bashagha speaks during an interview with Reuters in Tunis
Libya's Fathi Bashagha, who was appointed prime minister by the eastern-based parliament this month, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Tunis, Tunisia March 30, 2022. Picture taken March 30, 2022. REUTERS/Jihed Abidellaoui

From his mandate as a member of parliament to his ministerial position, the prime minister of Tobruk has forged his career through compromise.

Deprived of a government seat, the ‘second’ Libyan Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha is trying to take control. Elected by the Tobruk parliament, he held his first government meeting in Sabha on 21 April. This will have to do for now, since he cannot return to Tripoli, where he wants to be, without using force.

From visiting Fezzan, to an appearance among fans at the Benina football stadium, at construction sites, or with the medical staff of the Al-Hawari hospital in Benghazi, Bashaga has been doing what he can to be visible.

It’s also to prevent his rival, the prime minister of the Government of National Unity (GNU), Abdulhamid Dbeibeh, from taking up all the space. Dbeibeh still holds office in the capital and refuses to give up his position. Defeating him will be no easy task since he still has control over the country’s finances, via the Libyan Central Bank, which remains loyal to him.

Although discreet talks are being held between the rival camps of Fathi Bashagha and Abulhamid Dbeibeh, no common ground has been found. Compromise is however an art in which Fathi Bashagha has distinguished himself several times since the fall of the Gaddafi regime in 2011.

A stature abroad

Originally from the powerful city-state of Misrata, he trained at the city’s aviation school and graduated as a fighter pilot. He left the air force in 1993 to prosper in business by establishing his tire sales company Bashagha Tire in Misrata.

It was during the 2011 revolution that Bashagha became a spokesman for the military of the National Transitional Council (NTC). Above all, he was the liaison between the Misrata forces and NATO, a position that made him a recognised interlocutor abroad.

Having become a heavyweight in the port city, Bashagha entered politics in 2014. He was elected deputy for Misrata, but quickly came into conflict with the Tobruk parliament, which he did not recognise. He was aligned with the rebel executive in Tripoli. The latter, then known as the General National Congress (GNC) was led by Islamists and supported by the Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn) coalition of Misrati militias.

In the same year, Bashagha went against Marshal Khalifa Haftar for the first time. The military of the East launched Operation Dignity ‘to purge the country of terrorists’ against Islamist militias, supported by forces from Misrata, especially in Benghazi and Derna.

However, in 2015, he disassociated himself from the radicals and joined the camp of ‘moderate Islamists’ by supporting the Skhirat agreement for the creation of the Government of National Accord (GNA) chaired by Fayez al-Sarraj.

Reforming the security services

Three years later, in 2018, Bashagha rose to the position of minister of interior of the GNA. His appointment was intended to better control the Misrata militias and allow them in return, to have a voice in the Sarraj government.

The GNA was weakened by several katibas (unit of fighters), notably the 7th brigade (otherwise known as Kanyat of Tarhouna) and the Misrata militia Jabhat al-Somood, who were attacking the southern suburbs of Tripoli. The latter was commanded by a Misrati heavyweight-  linked to radical Islamists – militia leader Salah Badi.

Once in office, Bashagha set out to bring the militias back into line. He then initiated a reform of the security services. This mission responded to a strong demand from the US and the international community. Even though Bashagha gained points abroad, his rating fell among the militias, but this Misrata-native was already dreaming of the presidency.

He tried to play the game of reconciliation while General Haftar was snarling from the East. Bashagha reached out to him several times, in a discreet way, but without success. The offensive launched against the capital in April 2019 put a firm end to negotiations.

The Misrata militias provided the bulk of the fighters to protect Tripoli. Bashagha then turned to Ankara, where he cultivated good connections with the Muslim Brotherhood networks. He succeeded in obtaining a bilateral military agreement in November 2019. The arrival of Turkish forces and their drones would seal Haftar’s defeat in the battle for Tripoli in the summer of 2020.

Even so, seeking a way to distance himself from the new stature of Bashagha, Fayez al-Sarraj took the pretext of a repressed demonstration to suspend his minister of interior, who was then travelling abroad. Washington and Ankara pressured Sarraj, and Bashagha was reinstated on 4 September 2020.

Political compromises

Having achieved political clout in Libya and abroad, Bashagha did not lose sight of the presidency. When the UN-backed Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LPDF) organised a ballot in March 2021, he ran for office.

Once again, he favoured a compromise by forming a ticket with a rival, the speaker of the Tobruk parliament, Aguila Saleh – Khalifa Haftar’s main institutional ally.

The coalition was surprisingly defeated by the duo – Dbeibeh and Mohamed El Manfi. The latter were supposed to organise the presidential and parliamentary elections in December, but rivalries were back in full swing and the deadlines have been postponed with no new date in sight.

That, however, has not stopped Bashagha.

With his new alliance with the eastern camp, he surrounded himself with heavyweight misratis, such as the former deputy of the Council of State Ahmed Miitig, to campaign for the appointment of a new prime minister. In February, he was elected by parliament, led by his ally Aguila Saleh,

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