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How the man who wants to be president of Libya committed political suicide

May 25, 2023 at 8:02 am

Fathi Bashagha, former Prime Minister-designate by the eastern-based Libyan House of Representatives in Tobruk, in Sirte, Libya on May 17, 2022 [Abdullah Marei/Anadolu Agency]

Libya’s Tobruk-based Parliament voted on 16 May to dismiss Fathi Bashagha, as prime minister of parallel government in the east of the country and replaced him with his Finance Minister, Osama Hamada.  Only 70 parliamentarians out of 200-strong legislature voted to strip him of his duties.

Mr. Bashagha was accused of corruption and failing to deliver on his promise to install his government in the capital, Tripoli. A western Libya Misratan native, he attempted to enter the capital twice during his tenure as Prime Minister, but failed. In August of last year, he was chased, for the second time, out of the capital after fighting erupted between his supporters and rivals supporting Prime Minister, Abdulhamid Dbeibah, leaving some hundred civilians dead and injured. Mr. Bashagha, the former car tyres dealer, was forced to retreat to Sirte, in the middle of Libya, where he installed his government.

He is an over-ambitious politician, driven by a burning desire for power and hoping to, one day, become president of Libya. Back in 2011, he sided with the NATO supported rebels during the eight months’ civil war to topple the late leader, Muammer Gaddafi. Young Bashagha then gave himself the title of “coordinator of NATO operations in Libya”, literally helping the military alliance destroy his country in the name of freedom and democracy. On more than one occasion, Mr. Bashaga proudly used that title to highlight his contribution to what became known as the Libyan Revolution that not only destroyed Libya, but forced thousands of people into internal displacement while thousands more fled the country. Years later, such a title became a source of shame, as many Libyans saw NATO as an enemy, not friend.

READ: Libya joint commission starts talks on election laws

When the United Nations brokered a deal to organise legislative and presidential elections on 24 December, 2021, Mr. Bashagha was among the candidates, as was General Khlalif Haftar, the de facto ruler of eastern Libya, supported by the same Parliament that appointed Bashagha Prime Minister. Both men were fierce enemies during the General’s failed military offensive to take over Tripoli in 2019-2020. At that time, Mr. Bashagha was serving as the Minister of Interior in the former government of Fayez Sarraj and he was the driving force behind the security deal Sarraj signed with Ankara, allowing Turkiye to station hundreds of troops on Libyan soil and send in its drones and Syrian mercenaries to help defeat General Haftar’s forces in June 2020.

As Interior Minister, Fathi Bashagha cultivated stronger links with Tripoli-based armed militias, while strengthening his already established links with his Misratan native powerful militias.

The powerful Haftar - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

The powerful Haftar – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

However, he made a serious political mistake. On 20 December, 2021, just days before the aborted election day he, suddenly and surprisingly, appeared in Benghazi being welcomed by his one-time enemy, General Khalifa Haftar, talking about national reconciliation and the need to conduct peaceful and fair elections. Many of his Misratan supporters, sworn enemies of General Haftar, were shocked to see their man commit such “treason”. Many of them would, later, refrain from supporting his attempts to enter Tripoli by force.

In a way, his appointment as Prime Minister served as a good idea and seen as a serious attempt to bridge the differences between east and west but, over time, he became a burden.

General Haftar now wants to play the national reconciliation card more quietly, with the intention of having his supporters included in any new government which current Prime Minister, Abdulhamid Dbeibah, might be considering in order to organise the elections, if they ever take place. Dbeibah, a native Misratan himself, rejected the appointment of Fathi Bashagha from day one, and vowed not to hand over power but to an elected government. To break the deadlock, he is said to be in secret talks with General Haftar and his backer, Agila Saleh, Speaker of the Tobruk Parliament. The idea is to have a broad-based government that would be supported by the Parliament in preparations for elections to end Libya’s endless transition to democracy.

Furthermore, Fathi Bashagha is seen as a hawk at a time when hawkish politics in fractured Libya never paid off. Citing corruption as a reason for his dismissal, should not be discounted either. His government, as that of Mr. Dbeibah and Mr. Haftar’s army, are all deeply corrupt political structures, used to make money at the expense of the Libyan people. None of them have served any useful national purpose while the country sinks into a state of no war and no peace, without any certainty that fair and open elections will actually happen this year as the UN envoy, Abdoulaye Bathily, wants.

READ: Libya State Council says still studying UN initiative for holding elections

Indeed the 6+6 Commission, tasked with agreeing on the elections laws, has already started its meetings in Morocco on 22 May, but that does not mean a deal is guaranteed. The Commission, proposed by the UN, is made of an equal number of representatives from the Parliament and the Higher Council of State in Tripoli. Both chambers are supposed to agree on election laws but have, for the last three years, failed to make any substantial progress and they became more of an obstruction to the political process themselves.

Fathi Bashagha has certainly lost a great deal of support and, more importantly, lost whatever national credibility he might have enjoyed before joining the eastern camp. Playing the good guy in Libyan politics is not always a good idea and Mr. Bashagha’s fate is a good example. After calling General Haftar a criminal and dismissing any idea of negotiating with him in the 2019-2020 war, he joined him. This however, did not help his political ambitions but hampered his efforts.

It is unlikely that Mr. Bashgha’s dismissal will have any serious negative implications on the murky political swamp in Libya. At the same time, he should not be dismissed from politics altogether as he still enjoys the support of many others. However, any chances of him coming back any time soon are pretty dim.

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