Sarraj pushes out Bashagha amid Tripoli power struggle, street protests

Experts see the PM’s move as preempting a possible coup by interior minister.
Saturday 29/08/2020
A 2019 file picture shows head of Libya’s GNA, Fayez al-Sarraj (C), with military and security commanders of  forces loyal to his government. (AFP)
A 2019 file picture shows head of Libya’s GNA, Fayez al-Sarraj (C), with military and security commanders of forces loyal to his government. (AFP)

TRIPOLI - Fayez al-Sarraj, the prime minister of the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) moved late Friday to remove Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha amid rumours of an impending coup attempt eyed by Bashagha under the cover of fighting corruption and curbing violence against protesters.

Sarraj pinned the blame on Bashagha for the handling of street protests saying the interior minister would be investigated for the violent crackdown against demonstrators in Tripoli and other western cities, protesting corruption and declining public services.

The move coincided with reports of growing friction between Sarraj and Bashagha, evolving into a power struggle that threatened, according to experts, to generate into a coup attempt by the interior minister. The same experts see Sarraj’s move as preempting a possible coup by the increasingly powerful Bashagha.

“Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha has been temporarily suspended” and will face an inquiry “on his statements about the protests and incidents in Tripoli and other cities”, the GNA said.

He will be questioned on the authorisations and permits granted to the demonstrators, the security arrangements in place and the “violations committed”, it said.

Copy of decree suspending Bashagha and appointing Khaled Mazen as acting interior minister. (Facebook)
Copy of decree suspending Bashagha and appointing Khaled Mazen as acting interior minister. (Facebook)

Demonstrations began on Sunday in Tripoli, the seat of the GNA, against poor public services and living conditions, and gunmen fired on the crowd. Similar shootings occurred on Monday and Wednesday.

Gunmen on Wednesday attacked a peaceful demonstration by “firing live ammunition indiscriminately,” Bashagha had said.

The gunmen also kidnapped demonstrators, “sowing panic among the population and threatening security and public order”, he said, promising to “protect unarmed civilians from the brutality of a gang of thugs”.

At least six people were kidnapped from a Tripoli district by a militia overseen by the GNA, and many others were wounded, according to human rights groups.

Bashagha said in a statement posted on the interior ministry’s Facebook page early on Saturday that he was ready to submit to an investigation.

But he demanded any hearing be broadcast live for the sake of transparency.

Libya has endured almost a decade of violent chaos since the 2011 NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed veteran ruler Muammar Kadhafi.

Bashagha, who was appointed in 2018, played a central role during a 14-month offensive on Tripoli by Libyan National Army forces led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar that the GNA repelled in June with military support from Turkey.

He is seen as close to the GNA’s Turkish and Qatari backers. Loud gunfire could be heard over central Tripoli shortly after the decision was announced.

A decree issued by Sarraj said Bashagha would be investigated by the GNA leadership within 72 hours, and his duties would be assumed by a deputy minister, Khalid Ahmad Mazen. A separate decree assigned a regional force headed by Osama Jweili, a commander from another militarily powerful city, Zintan, to help ensure security in Tripoli.

Since Sunday protests over worsening living conditions and corruption have escalated in Tripoli. Armed men have used gunfire to disperse demonstrators, and Sarraj has imposed a 24-hour curfew for four days to counter the new coronavirus, a move seen by critics as a tactic for curbing the protests.

The interior ministry under Bashagha said it was ready to protect peaceful protesters from armed groups.

There have long been tensions between armed groups from Tripoli and Misrata. Those from Misrata dominated the capital for several years after Libya split into rival factions based in the west and east of the country in 2014. They later lost their foothold to Tripoli-rooted groups.