Libya: After five years at the helm, PM Sarraj having trouble letting go
Libya's prime minister had pledged to step down, but an about face has seen him angling to stay on in a new role, say officials.
The guns had fallen silent for more than three months in Libya’s civil war when Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj boarded his plane to Bahrain to visit his daughter. Over the past year and half, the unassuming leader had overseen the defence of the Tripoli with Turkish military aid against eastern commander Khalifa Haftar who, backed by Russian mercenaries and the United Arab Emirates, tried to break through the capital’s defences.
Now, Sarraj wants to rest. And after almost five years at the helm, to finally call it quits.
Over several days in September 2020, Sarraj mulled over his resignation before making the decision. He cancelled a visit to Europe, informing his hosts that he intended to step down, but kept much of his cabinet in the dark.
A day later he boarded a plane back to Tripoli and delivered a taped address announcing that he would hand over power by the end of October if a United Nations-led dialogue agreed on a new executive. Western countries lauded his decision—it’s not everyday that an Arab leader steps down willingly.
Sarraj’s announcement presented a dilemma in the oil-rich country that’s been in constant turmoil since a 2011 NATO-backed uprising unseated leader Moammer Al-Qaddafi. A network of politicians, businessman and militia leaders in western Libya has risen to power in the west over the past five years.
In the east, Haftar, a famously obstinate military man – who was still having trouble accepting his defeat – stewed as his nominal ally, the speaker of parliament Aguileh Saleh, took on leading political role. The UN-led dialogue that began in October promised to drag on, and the US, along with several other countries, called on Sarraj to stay on a little longer until a new executive was selected.
Sarraj himself seemed to be having second thoughts. He announced that he’d postpone his resignation, citing international and domestic appeals. “Sarraj’s volte-face on his pledge to leave office with the formation of a new temporary unified executive can be attributed to pressure from the Tripoli-armed groups and associated business interests,” a Western diplomat said, requesting anonymity to speak freely on the behind the scenes dealings.
Privately, Sarraj expressed opposition to being replaced with the ambitious Saleh, whom he labelled a Haftar proxy, although the two eastern leaders famously do not get along despite repeated mediation efforts by Egypt and the UAE. But behind that excuse, Western and Libyan officials said they believed that Sarraj’s opposition to his own interior minister who wants to replace him, Fathi Bashagha, motivated him.
Bashagha, who has cultivated ties with the United States, Turkey and lately Egypt, has joined forces with Aguileh Saleh to run on a joint ticket in the UN-mediated political talks, with Saleh as president and Bashagha as premier. Bashagha is especially despised by Tripoli militia leaders whom Sarraj has appointed to senior security positions in intelligence and a new security apparatus announced last week.
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Sarraj and his aides are now pushing for another alternative presented as the one most likely to bring about stability, with Sarraj becoming president in a new temporary government while appointing a prime minister from the east, or a western candidate acceptable to Haftar, Western, Arab and said Libyan officials.
“Sarraj’s hatred of Bashagha has yielded an unusual alliance with Haftar, including rumours of a a recent meeting between representatives of the two former foes to discuss the creation of a government which would see Sarraj remaining in the Presidency Council with either an eastern Prime Minister or with current deputy prime minister and Bashagha rival Ahmed Maiteeg,” said the Western diplomat.
In Tripoli, the militia leaders Bashagha pledged to crackdown against have drawn their lines, announcing support for the current government. But the opposition to a new government, particularly one headed by Bashagha, runs much deeper, say analysts.
“It’s not only about the armed groups, there’s a whole patronage network associated with Sarraj, all the people Sarraj has appointed to senior administration and state owned companies that see their interests as tied to Sarraj, and worry about their prospect of a new government that threatens their access to their spoils,” says Wolfram Lacher, an expert on Libyan politics with Germany’s SWP think tank.
“I believe that what is more central to Sarraj’s manoeuvring is not necessarily the armed groups but rather his advisors and political allies—which have no guarantee of retaining influence with a reshuffle,” says Emad Badi, a Libya expert and senior analyst with the Global Initiative.
Sarraj has declined interview requests and his national security aide and representative at the UN-political talks, Tajeldin al-Rizgaui, also declined to comment. But amid concerns that he and his aides are trying to foil the UN-political talks to stay on in power, ambassadors from several Western countries demanded a video conference with the leader on 30 December.
“International actors are closely monitoring actions by all parties to fulfil their commitments to the success of the UN-facilitated dialogues and, as the internationally recognised government, the GNA has a particular role to play in fully supporting this process,” said a joint statement by the US, UK, France, Italy and the UN after the talk with Sarraj.
Privately, officials told The Africa Report that the conversation was tough. Sarraj was reminded of his pledge to step down. The prime minister denied he was spoiling the UN dialogue.
“He even said he shut off his phone and wasn’t taking calls,” said one official with direct knowledge of the conversation.