Battle of Sirte deepens rifts within Sarraj government

The pace of accusations and name calling intensifies between Ahmed Maiteeq and Fathi Bashagha.
Wednesday 10/06/2020
A file picture of Libyan deputy prime minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA), Ahmed Maiteeq, speaking at news conference. (AFP)
A file picture of Libyan deputy prime minister of the Government of National Accord (GNA), Ahmed Maiteeq, speaking at news conference. (AFP)

TUNIS –There have always been tensions within the Libyan Presidential Council of the Government of Nation Accord (GNA) headed by Fayez al-Sarraj due to the competing agendas of militias tied to various regional agendas.

Such tensions usually stay concealed, but recent divisions within the GNA have spilled out into the open, revealing a deepening rift that could challenge any quick settlement to the conflict.

The fast-moving political and military developments in Libya and the accompanying sharp shift in the balance of power between the different ground forces that allowed the Misrata militias to reach the outskirts of Sirte have all placed the Sarraj government under tremendous pressure.

Indeed the alliance behind the GNA is floundering and threatening to explode as Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha, the GNA’s new strongman, continues to rise. Bashagha is described as Turkey’s new favourite actor in Libya.

Fayez al-Sarraj, prime minister of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), speaks during a press conference in the capital Tripoli. (AFP)
Fayez al-Sarraj, prime minister of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), speaks during a press conference in the capital Tripoli. (AFP)

Libyan sources told The Arab Weekly that Sarraj had been pressured by Bashagha, who is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, to freeze the membership of his first vice-president, Ahmed Maiteeq, in a surprising move that effectively “rearranges the composition of the Presidential Council.”

The sources said that Sarraj issued a circular bearing his signature to “suspend all administrative and financial procedures, including decisions and circulars, issued by Ahmed Maiteeq, Vice-President of the Presidential Council of the Government of Accord, and all his signatures and seals are considered suspended as of Thursday (June 4, 2020) and until further notice, and that is for the sake of preserving the country’s interests during the current circumstances.”

The circular confirms a serious rift between pillars of the GNA. Sarraj sent the document to a number of senior GNA officials, including the governor of the Central Bank, the head of the Audit Bureau, the head of the Oversight and Follow-up Commission, the foreign minister and the finance minister.

This decision, which adds further instability to Sarraj’s government, came amid a state of tension and confusion in a continuously shifting and dangerous regional context. Meanwhile, Maiteeq and Bashagha are leveling increasingly serious accusations at each other. The latter seems to have intensified his pressure on the other members of the Presidential Council in order to subjugate them to the will of the parties supporting him, namely Turkey.

Libyan National Army (LNA) spokesman Ahmed Al-Mismari confirmed the existence of a rift within the government of the Sarraj militias. between those who agree with a ceasefire and those who reject such an agreement. He pointed out that the rejectionist axis includes the Libyan Fighting Group, the Muslim Brotherhood, criminal militias and of course the Turks, while the second axis is “weak and does not have weapons.”

Accusations between the two axes started flying after reports broke that Maiteeq had contacted the commanding officer of the operations room of the so-called “Operation to liberate Sirte and al-Jafra” of the Sarraj government and conveyed to him a message from the Russians not to attack Sirte because as it is a “red line.” He was told he must therefore withdraw the militia forces to the area of Bouirat al-Hassoun.

Maiteeq’s call to the operations room did not sit well with Bashagha, whose militia from Misrata had come close to the outskirts of the city of Sirte. Bashagha was enraged by the development and rejected what he referred to as Maiteeq’s “diktats,” saying that “the red lines are drawn by the blood of the martyrs, and are not subject to diktats, except for a bunch of weak-willed opportunists.”

Bashagha did not stop there. In a tweet, he vowed “to take the city of Sirte” despite his militias’ failure to enter it. He was not alone in going after Maiteeq. A number of other GNA-affiliated figures and an army of social media activists launched a widespread, coordinated attack on Maiteeq.

For his part, Maiteeq acknowledged he had made the call to the commander of the operations room and said that “Libya is part of the international system, and we received a clear message and it was our duty to convey it to the president, … and we informed the military command of the details of the message that we received, and we have not instructed any party individually.”

Maiteeq, however, tried to minimise the incident, saying that “the principle of the political leadership of the state and the military leadership is firmly entrenched in us, and there is a separation between the two leaderships with the military one depending on the political one.” However, he did not comment on Sarraj’s decision to suspend his membership in the Presidential Council. Sarraj’s government, meanwhile, finds itself once more in an exhausting position — overwhelmed as internal disputes intersect and multiply, increasing doubts about the prospect of its continued cohesion.