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Why has Libya’s Interior Minister asked the US to establish a base there?

Interior minister in Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) Fathi Bashagha speaks during a press conference in Tunis, Tunisia on 26 December 2019. [Yassıne Gaıdı - Anadolu Agency]
Interior minister in Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) Fathi Bashagha speaks during a press conference in Tunis, Tunisia on 26 December 2019. [Yassıne Gaıdı - Anadolu Agency]

Fathi Bashagha is the Interior Minister in Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), although many observers believe that he is the real power behind the throne. He rarely misses an opportunity to strengthen this perception, and despite his clumsy handling of the media he seems to enjoy the spotlight.

Originally from the powerful city of Misrata, in western Libya, Bashagha is a former air force pilot. He took up his current post in October 2018 and just two months later he made headlines. Daesh had just attacked the Foreign Ministry after hitting the election commission and the national oil company in May and September respectively. In December 2018, Bashagha lashed out at the lack of security, criticising his ministry, the militias and almost everyone else while promising an overhaul of the security agencies in the country. Almost two years later, he still criticises, but does little else.

Last Sunday he was at it again. During a press conference in which no questions were allowed, he accused the GNA intelligence agency of being under the control of one particular militia. “The Libyan intelligence agency is unreliable,” he claimed, but he did not say what he is going to do about it, and how. He also reconfirmed the long-known fact that militias dominate the capital Tripoli, “obstructing the work of the [interior] ministry.”

READ: Yet another Security Council resolution, but there’s no change in Libya 

Critically, Bashagha singled out Al-Nawasi Brigade, a brutally criminal militia responsible for many crimes including kidnapping; my own brother-in-law is a victim, having been snatched on 2 February. It did not take long for the militia to respond in threatening fashion and challenge the minister at what is a very difficult time for the GNA. Al-Nawasi is fighting against General Khalifa Haftar’s forces in southern Tripoli and upsetting the militia might further weaken the GNA’s defences.

One of Al-Nawasi Brigade’s leaders, Ali Ramly, appeared in video footage threatening Bashagha. He accused the minister of “no longer wanting Al-Nawasi because you have Syrian Daesh members.” The angry militia leader was referring to Syrian fighters, said to be in their thousands, who Turkey has ferried to Tripoli, a fact confirmed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the first time on 21 February. Based in eastern Tripoli, Al-Nawasi militia has a history of criminal activities, and for a long time has been a dominant force in the capital. The same militia is also in control of the intelligence agency, which explains why Bashagha thinks that it is “unreliable”. The minister accused the group of being “outlaws” and trying to “weaken” his ministry, which he appraised as doing “a fine job”, citing its success in “securing the Revolution’s anniversary celebration in Tripoli.”

People stage a protest against Libya's renegade commander Khalifa Haftar as they climb on a Haftar's armored vehicle seized by The Government of National Accord (GNA) at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli, Libya on 31 January 2020. [BURKAN AL GHADAN OPERATION PRESS OFFICE / HANDOUT - Anadolu Agency]

People stage a protest against Libya’s renegade commander Khalifa Haftar as they climb on a Haftar’s armored vehicle seized by The Government of National Accord (GNA) at Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli, Libya on 31 January 2020. [BURKAN AL GHADAN OPERATION PRESS OFFICE / HANDOUT – Anadolu Agency]

The minister’s message was that his officials are doing great if only they can be left alone, but it’s his primary job to keep people and property secure and not lavish praise on them simply for doing what is, after all, their job. Moreover, the Interior Ministry should not expect any help from armed groups while it carries out its law enforcement duties.

Bashagha’s biggest clanger to date came last Saturday. In a telephone interview with Bloomberg, without being specifically asked he said that, “If the United States wants to set up a base in Libya, we as a government, would not mind.” This was an unprecedented public call from one country to another to establish a military base on its soil. It amounted to inviting the US to establish its African command base in Libya.

The late Muammar Gaddafi must be turning in his grave, for it was he who, in 1970, expelled the Americans from the huge Wheelus Air Base, their biggest military facility outside the US covering 20 square miles on the coast near Tripoli. It then became the civilian Maitiqa Airport, named after a little Libyan girl killed when a US fighter plane crashed into her family home in the 1960s. Under Gaddafi, Libya used to commemorate 11 June annually as the day that US troops were kicked out of the country.

Trying to justify his outrageous offer, Bashagha said that the US needs to confront the increasing Russian involvement, not only in Libya, but also across the African continent. He claimed that Russia’s increased involvement in Libya, supporting the GNA’s rival Haftar, must be countered by the US, because Russia is “looking beyond Haftar and into the African continent itself.” The GNA minister’s offer came after US Defence Secretary Mark Esper laid out plans to redeploy and scale back AFRICOM forces in Africa in order to challenge Russia and China more globally, but mainly in Europe and Asia.

READ: While some Libyans are kidnapped or displaced, others are celebrating 

What Bashagha fails to grasp is that the Donald Trump administration is unlikely to offer the GNA any substantial military support in its battle for survival. The current White House is already engaged in a re-election campaign under the same theme as the previous poll: America First and a reduced US military involvement in world affairs. In any case, foreign policy issues have never really played any substantial role in how Americans vote for their president.

Since Bashagha’s gaffe, hundreds of Libyans have taken to social media to express their outrage and shame the minister who wants “colonialism to return to Libya,” as one Facebook user put it. One tweet insisted “No to Wheelus #2”.

Interior Minister Bashagha no doubt deliberately banned questions during his press conference to avoid being asked about his invitation to the US to establish a base in Libya. A source within the ministry, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me that, “[Bashagha] was so worried about being confronted with such a question.”

Curiously, neither the GNA Prime Minister Fayez Al-Sarraj nor Foreign Minister Mohamed Siala have made any comment about the offer to the Americans by their colleague in the Interior Ministry. Do they endorse what he said?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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