Through thick and thin, the United Arab Emirates has been a longtime supporter of Egypt in the fight to defeat political Islam, until now. Libya has shown itself to be the one thing that will divide these longtime allies.
Meet the strongmen of Libya’s Government of National Accord
While Fayez al-Sarraj is the leading man of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), other leaders have emerged, primarily following the operation to defend the Libyan capital from General Khalifa Haftar’s troops, which launched an offensive on the city in April 2019. Who are these men and what are their personal ambitions?
Fathi Bashagha, the ambitious one
On paper, he is “just” interior minister. In reality, he is the main figure of Tripoli’s government to have played his cards right in Libya’s civil war.
Sporting rectangular glasses and always clean shaven and perfectly coiffed, Bashagha gives off the aura of a low-key, responsible statesman, as if in contrast to the lawlessness sometimes projected by the western Libyan militias. A revolutionary from the outset in 2011, he is at times perceived as the man from Misrata, the city where he was born and which is recognised as the real seat of power in the Tripolitania region.
His critics see him as symbolising the port city’s dominance over government authorities in western Libya. However, according to Anas el-Gomati, who is director of the Libyan think tank Sadeq Institute and familiar with western Libyan government authorities, “His ambitions are more far-reaching than to defend the Misratis and represent Misrata, he wants to represent Libya. He no longer wants to be viewed as someone only concerned with security matters, he has a project and political ambitions.”
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According to Emmanuel Dupuy, President of the Institut Prospective et Sécurité de l’Europe (IPSE), “Since the death of the head of Libya’s intelligence agency, Abdelkader Touhami, in May, the GNA has been divided over his replacement. Bashagha is obviously looking to find positions for his cronies.”
The Libyan interior minister may have his sights set on nothing less than the post of prime minister, if not the presidency. Credited by most as having foiled Haftar’s offensive on Tripoli, he is currently devoting his time to building up a full-fledged, state-controlled police force, “the hardest job right now in Libya”, says Gomati.
He recently came under criticism for purchasing a fleet of brand-new BMWs for the police force. “It was probably a gaffe on his part, but he meant it as a way to set the bar higher for Libya’s police and establish a prestigious institution that’s well-equipped and attractive,” adds Gomati. But where does he stand on the hot-button issue of the moment, the Sirte front?
“He wants to take back Sirte,” says Gomati quite plainly, adding that, in his view, Bashagha’s national ambitions mean that he will not accept a de facto partition of Libya.
In Dupuy’s view, “He’ll want to recover the oil there because you need money to lead! The Turks, and especially their intelligence agencies [MIT], need someone they can rely on to continue to ensure equipment deliveries, and only the person who controls the militias and ensures the security of Misrata Port who can do the job. On top of that, he’s the only person heard by Washington, Moscow, Ankara and Rome.”
When it comes to his relations with Paris – the French government has been making timid efforts to establish contact with the Libyan minister for several months now – Gomati says that “Bashagha warned France against supporting Haftar and the United Arab Emirates, but is interested in cooperating with the French after Haftar’s defeat”, while Dupuy points out that “he has visited Rome several times, but Paris just once”.
Mustafa Sanalla, the oil man
Political games are not his problem. His main mission is to make sure that Libyan oil, regardless of where it comes from, continues to supply the global market. Accused of taking the side of the government of Tripoli, where the National Oil Corporation’s (NOC) headquarters is located, he was confronted with plummeting oil output on top of falling oil prices when several eastern tribes decided in January to close oil production facilities in Cyrenaica.
The Cyrenaica tribes faulted him for not redistributing oil revenues equitably around the country. After the Central Bank of Libya reported several billions of dollars in losses, these tribes, represented by Senoussi Hileg, indicated that they were ready to lift the blockade over the facilities in July. Nonetheless, the NOC has not regained control of the Al-Charara field (located 900 kilometres south of Tripoli), which has a daily output of 315,000 barrels a day and is currently in the hands of Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, whose presence Sanalla has denounced.
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“He’s the person the Americans go to, and this international standing provides him with relative freedom in relation to the various political factions. The NOC’s chief executive could play the same role that the head of SONATRACH in Algeria has had, says Dupuy.
Osama al-Juwaili, the security man
He was entrusted with carrying out the “Volcano of Rage Operation” which defended Tripoli. Prior to the 2011 revolution, Commander Osama al-Juwaili had been an instructor at Tripoli’s military academy. Like Bashagha, he married the revolutionary cause early on when he brought Zintan, his hometown, into the revolution, becoming head of Zintan’s military council. After that, he served as defence minister for about a year.
The commander of the Tripolitania forces was successful in uniting, at least for a certain time, the various and at times hostile Tripolitania militias to push Haftar’s forces back. “He isn’t viewed as someone who harbours political ambitions. He’s a figure of consensus and respected enough to stabilise Tripolitania and maintain the balance between the various factions in western Libya. Despite ethnic rivalries, the Berbers, for instance, agree to work with him because he’s a revolutionary figure in their minds,” says Gomati.
Ahmed Maiteeq, the businessman
The deputy prime minister of the GNA embodies the “constructive” face of his camp, encouraging negotiations rather than confrontation to recover Sirte. Maiteeq is also from Misrata “but grew up in Tripoli”, says Gomati. Well regarded by Moscow, he was sent to the Russian capital on 3 June, while Sarraj went to Ankara.
“The Tripoli government is now convinced that Russia is a very important partner for establishing stability in Libya. In the coming days, we will see a sharp decrease in military escalation thanks to Russian diplomacy,” Maiteeq told the Russian state-run RIA Novosti news agency.
The businessman’s remarks stirred up a certain amount of hostility within the GNA, where his swift willingness to negotiate comes across badly. According to Gomati, “He doesn’t represent a significant bloc of voters, he’s trying to be an ally of economic development and the business class.” In spite of his lack of popularity, he could continue to be at the forefront of the regime if the political process moves forward.