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Fathi Bashagha: Libyan tyre trader wheeling and dealing for power

As the North African country wakes up to two prime ministers in power, the coming days will test Bashaga's ability to form a government
Fathi Bashagha was appointed prime minister by Libya's parliament on Thursday, but his predecessor refuses to hand over power (Reuters/file photo)

In the op-eds he is prone to write in western newspapers, Libya's newly appointed premier Fathi Bashagha strikes a conciliatory tone. He says he wants to bring a “diversity of voices” to factious politics and put the oil-rich country on “a path to unity”. 

A former interior minister in Libya’s UN-recognised government, Bashagha stuck to the same script on Thursday night. Speaking at a press conference after his plane touched down in Tripoli he vowed “there will be no room for revenge” in a new Libyan government that would “reach out to everyone”.

“The more inclusive he is, the better chance he has in forming a government,” Elie Abouaoun, director of the Middle East and North Africa programmes at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), told Middle East Eye.

'[Bashagha] has made a lot of promises... Now is the time to see if he can wheel and deal like he says,'

- Libyan businessman in Benghazi 

But for Bashagha, who was unanimously appointed prime minister by Libya’s parliament on Thursday, the task won’t be easy.

He has promised to form a new unity government in no more than two weeks and ensure national elections are held in 14 months' time.

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Meanwhile, the country’s current Prime Minister Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibah refuses to step aside and has deemed Thursday’s vote as illegitimate.

He compared Bashagha’s arrival in Tripoli to an invasion.

But Libya’s parliament, which is based in Tobruk, an eastern city controlled by military leader Khalifa Haftar, says Dbeibah’s time is up. He came to office in a power-sharing arrangement brokered by the UN with a mandate to organise the country for elections at the end of last year.

Those efforts collapsed as the Libyan elites squabbled over election laws and a constitutional framework for the vote. The entry of contentious candidates like commander Khalifa Haftar, Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, and Dbeibah himself, who entered office pledging not to run in elections, further derailed the process. 

Poke Dbeibah in the nose

Bashagha’s detractors say the move to name him prime minister will do little to help pave the way for elections and only risks a new cycle of political chaos.

“The whole discussion on holding elections has just shifted to who is the more legitimate government,” Tarek Megerisi, a Libya expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations, told MEE.

“A standoff is brewing and we are back to the one country two governments model,” he added.

Others are less sceptical. They note that Bashagha, a leader from the country's west,  is making inroads in the east after a decade of division.  Even after associating himself with Haftar, who remains contentious in Tripoli, the former interior minister was able to travel unopposed into the capital. 

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They say Thursday's vote might offer a chance for the two regions to coalesce around a unity candidate and diplomatically phase-out Dbeibah after he failed to deliver on the promise of holding elections last year.

"The way it happened is awkward,” Abouaoun from USIP said. "But the fact that there was some sort of agreement between heavyweight politicians, between the east and west, could be a good sign for Libya. It could stabilise things."

Much will depend on how Bashagha manoeuvres in the coming days as he tries to build a government. 

A Libyan source who regularly consults with Haftar told MEE that Bashagha has cut a deal with the commander and his family in a move that would see him find a new role in a unity government after being left out in the cold by Dbeibah.

One cabinet position Haftar hopes to secure is the powerful defence ministry, which is currently held by Dbeiebah as prime minister. 

'The French are supporting Bashagha in a big way,'

- Jalel Harchaoui, Libya expert 

“This is a very sweet day for Haftar,” Jalel Harchaoui, a researcher specialising in Libya at the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, told MEE.

“He’s finally getting his chance to poke Dbeibah in the nose."

The Libyan source, a businessman based in Benghazi, told MEE much is still up in the air. “He [Bashagha] has made a lot of promises. He is in Tripoli. Now is the time to see if he can wheel and deal like he says."

From tyre trader to prime minister 

The 59-year-old Bashagha hails from Misrata, a city on Libya’s west coast that played an outsized role in the overthrow of long-time ruler Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. 

Bashagha served as a Libyan airforce pilot until 1993 and then went on to work as a businessman initially importing tyres and construction supplies through his company Bashagha Tyre.

Following the ousting of Gaddafi, he rose through the ranks of local Misrati politics becoming closely tied to the Muslim Brotherhood and some Islamist militias. At one time he wielded control over two of Misrata’s most powerful forces, the Mahjoub and Halbous brigades. 

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In 2018, Bashagha became interior minister in Libya’s UN-recognised government. He spearheaded some security reforms and reined in a few militias. Supporters welcomed his vow to protect civilians against “a gang of thugs” at a time when many said western Libya had descended into lawlessness. 

Like Dbeibah, who also comes from Misrata, Bashagha has cultivated close links with Turkey. In the summer of 2020, he was suspended from his post as interior minister.

He visited President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shortly after, and upon his return to Tripoli was quickly reinstated.

On Friday, Libyan media reported protests against Bashagha in Misrata. The city is home to a large community of ethnic Turks. It has fielded powerful leaders in Libya's Muslim Brotherhood and is considered by many a pro-Turkish bastion. A passenger ferry even connects the port city of Misrata to Turkey's Izmir province.

Harchaoui said that squabbling amongst the people of Misrata - who dominate much of the country's political space - is not new. He downplayed the chance of fighting breaking out between the two men’s rival camps. 

“There is a real chance that violence erupts in Tripoli between militias, but I don’t think we will see Misrati-on-Mistati clashes,” he said.

'Turks are up to their necks' 

Bashagha’s high-profile position in the Government of National Accord (GNA) put him in close contact with Ankara, whose successful 2020 military intervention on the side of Tripoli turned the tide of the conflict against Khalifa Haftar.

Despite this, Harchaoui said that Dbeibah is still considered Ankara’s man in Tripoli and that Bashagha’s appointment would be viewed as a threat to Turkey’s interests in the country. 

“The Turks are involved up to their necks with the Dbeibah camp. He defends their interests at the Central Bank, in the capital, and in accessing lucrative construction contracts."

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Bashagha has been aiming for the top spot in Libyan politics for a while. He made a bid for the premiership during the UN-brokered talks that put Dbeibah in power. He was also a candidate in last year's failed presidential elections.

All the while he has courted a wide net of international backers outside of Turkey.

In August 2021 he wrote a glowing opinion piece in the Financial Times welcoming more US support for Libya under the Biden Administration.

A Libyan source familiar with the matter said he has a good working relationship with Stephanie Williams - who served as a top US diplomat in Libya before her appointment as the UN’s special representative to the country.

Perhaps the greatest sign of Bashagha’s political agility is his relationship with France. The Libyan played a central role organising militias to defend Tripoli against Haftar during the eastern commander’s failed attempt to seize the city. 

During the fight, Bashagha went public accusing Paris of relentlessly supporting "the criminal Haftar”. His interior ministry even halted bilateral security agreements with France over the allegations.

In a May 2019 interview with Le Figaro newspaper, France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Bashagha “regularly attacks France” and alluded that the Libyan was cosying up to Turkey.

'They are trying to offer Dbeibah a dignified exit,'

- Elie Abouaoun, United States Institute of Peace (USIP)

But as the fighting subsided, Bashagha went on a diplomatic blitz across Europe and met multiple times with senior French officials, including Le Drian.

Harchaoui said the animosity was in the past and "the French are supporting Bashagha in a big way".

The Libyan source in direct contact with Haftar echoed those sentiments.

“France is behind this alliance," he said. "They see this as their chance to get back into Libya."

UN takes note

So far the majority of international players in Libya are keeping quiet. Megerisi told MEE that Bashagha could likely count on Haftar’s foreign backers - “the UAE, Egypt, and France" - for support.

Egypt’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that it welcomed the new government.

The UN, which has been pushing for Libya to hold elections, now finds itself caught in the middle of a standoff between two prime ministers.

On Thursday, media reports said the UN was recognising Ddeibah as the leader, sparking a controversy that the organisation was meddling in Libya's politics by favouring one man over the other. 

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It has since tried to clarify its position. The secretary-general issued a statement on Friday that did not name Dbeibah or Bashagha.

It called on "all parties to continue to preserve stability in Libya as a top priority” and said it took “note of the vote” by Libya’s parliament appointing Bashagha prime minister.

Abouaoun said it was a sign of both domestic and international support coalescing around Bashagha.

“They are trying to offer Dbeibah a dignified exit,” he said.

When he landed on Thursday, Bashagha thanked Dbeibah and the GNA for taking on responsibilities “during a difficult period” and said he was certain his counterpart would respect democratic principles and a peaceful transition of power.

Abouaoun said the US and UN may feel constrained by a “broad consensus” that wants Dbeibah out.

Instead of staking out a position on one figure, “they will focus now on requesting the new government to hold elections as soon as possible”.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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