Power struggle between Sarraj, Bashagha could mean Tripoli-Misrata clashes
TRIPOLI – Since his return from Turkey, Fathi Basagha, the suspended interior minister of Libya’s Turkey-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), has signalled his frustration with Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, mobilising militias from Misrata that back him to flex their muscles during a military parade and speaking of his dissatisfaction with Sarraj’s decision to have him investigated.
The developments point to escalating tensions between the two sides’ powerful militias, which some fear could culminate in military confrontation.
A military parade marking Bashagha’s arrival on Saturday from Turkey to the capital Tripoli, under the protection of about 300 military vehicles that travelled to the Mitiga base to accompany him, shows mounting tension between militias supporting Bashagha and Sarraj.
In remarks at the airport, Bashagha addressed the GNA’s plans to have him investigated, telling a crowd of supporters at Mitiga airport: “I am ready to be questioned. I have nothing to hide.”
“Everyday life in Libya is painful,” he said, blaming hardships in the country on “corruption in all sectors.”
“I am not opposed to any group or individual. I am speaking about a sick phenomenon called corruption,” he said
Bashagha later said he would comply with the GNA’s investigation and vowed that he would continue his fight against corruption, inside and outside the government.
However, he demanded that any hearing be broadcast live for the sake of transparency.
Bashagha argues that he was suspended because of his vocal opposition to corruption within state institution, adding that he has repeatedly called on the government to set out a comprehensive programme to solve the country’s various crises.
On Saturday, Sarraj appointed a new defence minister and army chief after Bashagha was suspended, amid street protests against poor public services and living conditions.
The decrees followed the announcement hours earlier by the GNA that it had “temporarily suspended” Bahshagha after militia gunmen fired on peaceful demonstrators last week.
Analysts described the reshuffle as part of a preemptive move by Sarraj to counter a feared coup by the interior minister.
Suspicions that Turkey is playing a role in the alleged coup plot grew after Bashagha and Khaled al-Mishri, president of the Supreme Council of State, travelled to Ankara a few days ago on a visit that was not coordinated with Sarraj.
The GNA said it will investigate Bashagha over his alleged role in the excessive violence against protesters.
Separately, Sarraj appointed Mohammed al-Haddad as chief of staff, replacing Mohammed al-Sharif. Salah Namroush was also promoted to defence minister, a position that was occupied by Sarraj.
Haddad is a native of the coastal city of Misrata, 200 kilometres east of Tripoli. Misrata is a stronghold of armed groups that have fought alongside the GNA against the eastern-based Libyan National Army (LNA), commanded by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.
Libyan media sources reported on Sunday that Bashagha is expected to be investigated after the so-called August 23 Movement (Hirak) held him responsible for violence in Tripoli after a protester was killed by a pro-GNA militia.
The Hirak youth condemned the killing of the demonstrator and called on the presidential council to issue orders to release other demonstrators who were detained.
In a new sign of escalation, Bashagha said during an interview with a Misrata TV channel on Sunday that he disapproves of Sarraj’s decision to suspend him but that he will willingly comply with the investigation.
Bashagha argues that he is actually being targeted because he is shining a light on corruption. When returning from Turkey, he said: “Corruption is rampant in all sectors of the state and I am ready for accountability. I also call for a state that is able to hold accountable the corrupt people who have wasted billions.”
“Corruption has destroyed our lives,” he added.
The people of Misrata, where Bashagha is originally from, issued a statement condemning his suspension.
Misrata is home to the most powerful militia in western Libya, with many of its members affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood group.
Estimated at some 17,000, they are well-armed and hardened from battles fought against the LNA during the war on Tripoli.
Bashagha previously attempted to put pressure on Sarraj by accusing militias loyal to him of targeting protesters in Tripoli.
Any clash between militias of Tripoli, which are largely loyal to Sarraj, and militias of Misrata, mostly loyal to Bashagha, would challenge both sides, especially the Misrata factions, to receive assurances from Sirte that the LNA does not launch its own attack on Misrata.