Struggle for power by Libya’s Sarraj, Bashagha comes to the open

Competition likely to change the balance of forces in western region
Saturday 25/07/2020
A 2019 file picture shows GNA’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj (R) speaking with Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha (L) in Tripoli. (AFP)
A 2019 file picture shows GNA’s Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj (R) speaking with Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha (L) in Tripoli. (AFP)

TUNIS – The struggle for power within the Libya Presidential Council of the Government of National Accord (GNA) between Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and the Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha has reached new peaks.

Libyan political sources described the conflict as a case of two men “competing to please Turkey,” and expected this competition to change the map of the balance of power in western Libya, in terms of reducing the growing power of the group coming from the city of Misrata, Bashagha’s hometown, or at least make them accept a new reality that would change their authoritarian behaviour.

Outraged by Fathi Bashagha’s memo to the GNA’s minister of transport, Miled Maatoug, requiring him to seek the prior authorisation of the Minister of Interior for all private and regular commercial flights in and out of Libyan airports, Fayez al-Sarraj issued a counter order to the ministries, government agencies and public companies and institutions instructing them to ignore Bashagha’s orders.

The Arab Weekly obtained a copy of Sarraj’s memo to “ministers, heads of public agencies, institutions, services, companies and the like,” instructing them not to implement the decision of the Minister of Interior regarding the requirement to have Bashagha’s permission for private flights to land, take off or transit from Libya.

In his memo of last Tuesday, Sarraj stressed that the role of the Ministry of Interior is limited only to requesting the names of passengers, but granting landing and take-off authorisations is the prerogative of the Prime Minister alone, and not part of the powers of the Ministry of Interior.

To justify his orders, the prime minister cited the Presidential Council’s order No. 209 issued at the end of last March and the state of emergency measures therein.

He pointed out that the goal of his decision is to “control, organise and follow up on departure and arrival operations of private flights.”

Described as Turkey’s strongman in Libya, Fathi Bashagha had on July 8 sent a memo to transport minister, Miled Maatoug, ordering him not to authorise landings, take-offs and transits of private flights without prior permission by the minister of the interior.

In his memo, Bashagha stressed the “necessity of submitting a nominal flight manifest including the airports of departure and arrival in order for permission to be granted.” He justified his orders by claiming that he had received “intelligence from the security services indicating that some terrorist elements intend to leave Libya using private aircraft and flights.”

However, the GNA’s Presidential Council issued a memo where it said that “the procedure of forbidding exit from and entry to (Libyan territory) violates the constitutional declaration and the legislation in force,” noting at the same time that Bashagha’s orders “were used to prevent some prominent public figures from leaving and entering and delaying them in a manner inconsistent with their status and standing.”

At the time, Bashagha’s instructions kicked off silent panic among GNA members, as well as the Tripoli militia leaders who are resentful of the hegemony of the Misrata militias. The measure was seen as a dangerous precedent laying the ground for a new reality where Bashagha would be the de facto ruler granting, among others, travel authorisations to GNA ministers and officials, militia leaders and even military leaders.

Experts say these developments will add to tensions between Sarraj and Bashagha, even if it is all “within the framework of Muslim Brotherhood’s agendas.”

Libyan political activist, Kamal al-Mer’ash expressed his belief that the conflict is broader than that and is actually directly related to Sarraj’s minister of interior himself.

Speaking on the phone with The Arab Weekly, Mer’ash said that Bashagha had purchased a private aircraft for his own transportation, and that Sarraj “does not want his minister Bashagha to be flying off in all directions without keeping an eye on him, especially after the latter started implementing his old-new project to restore the control of the Misrata militias on the capital, Tripoli, in alliance with the remnants of the radical government of Ghuwail al-Misrati, eliminate the Tripoli militias and pave the way for the removal of Sarraj.”

He also did not rule out in this context that Sarraj had “finally realised this scenario and began restricting the powers of his minister, Bashagha, by defending the Tripoli militias and asserting their legitimacy in order to protect them from Bashagha’s project of dismantling these militias under the pretext that this was being done in coordination with the US embassy.”

It was noticeable that the disclosure of Sarraj’s memorandum rescinding Bashagha’s orders came after it was confirmed that Bashagha had indeed purchased a private 5A-MIS aircraft. It also coincided with Sarraj’s unannounced visit to Turkey last Wednesday, two days following Fathi Bashagha’s own visit to Ankara where he held talks with Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar.