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Libya interior minister campaigns to lead country as fragile peace holds

Libya’s interior minister has completed a three-day charm offensive in France, as a tentative ceasefire in the war-torn country holds and diplomatic jostling for its leadership roles intensifies.

Fathi Bashagha, who hopes to become Libya’s interim prime minister, is regarded by the United Arab Emirates and forces in the east of Libya as under the influence of both the Muslim Brotherhood and Turkey, a country with which France is increasingly in conflict, not only in Libya but across the Middle East.

If Bashagha, determined to present himself as a supporter of a democratic pluralist Libya, could gain French support, or at least reduce its objections, it would increase his chances of taking Libya to elections next year.

In his talks in Paris, Bashagha met the foreign, interior and defence ministers, and signed memorandums of understanding on closer French security cooperation. The French oil firm Total was also in discussion with the Libyan national oil corporation about expanding its activity.

France emphasised that the meetings were within the “framework of regular contact France has with all Libyan actors”, but the depth of its exchanges with Bashagha were striking. France has been a covert supporter of Khalifa Haftar, the renegade general in charge of eastern forces, who mounted a bloody, but unsuccessful siege of Tripoli ending in the summer. Bashagha’s visit was controversial with some Libyans, who regarded it as a betrayal.

The UN hopes Libya may have finally turned a political corner, ending years of on-off fighting, by agreeing on 23 October to an immediate nationwide ceasefire that has helped Libyan oil production to soar back to 1.2m barrels a day, the highest level for more than a year. The ceasefire agreement requires all foreign forces and mercenaries to leave Libya within three months, which Turkey and the UAE may resist.

Stephanie Williams, the UN special envoy for Libya, in her most upbeat address yet to the UN security council, on Thursday said “the language of peace prevails over the language of war”.

In talks in Tunis last week the 75 delegates to the UN-sponsored Libya Political Dialogue Forum agreed to hold elections on 24 December 2021, the 70th anniversary of Libya’s birth, but were not able to agree a procedure to select the new three-person presidency council or the interim prime minister.


Police with posters supporting Bashagha

Libyan police in Misrata putting on a show of support for Fathi Bashagha. Photograph: Ayman al-Sahili/Reuters

The LPDF had already accepted that the three members of the new council would each represent one of the country’s three historic regions – Cyrenaica, Fezzan and Tripolitania – and several of those attending wanted the vote for each of the three to be limited to those delegates from the region concerned. Others wanted all the delegates to vote together as a single college for each of the three members. A move to exclude the generation of politicians that have ruled Libya since 2011, including Bashagha, won majority support, but did not meet the required threshold.

The meeting was marred by claims, signed by a majority of the 75 delegates, that there had been attempts to bribe some delegates to support certain candidates. Williams said she would investigate and seek to sanction anyone found guilty.

Williams this week told a Turkish thinktank she was concerned that all sides may be preparing for a breakdown of the ceasefire. “On the ground, tactical developments in Libya’s central region remain worrying, as reinforcements continue to pour into both sides and the risk of miscalculation remains,” she said. “In Tripoli, tensions between armed groups are on the rise.”

In a sign that Turkey would not leave easily, Hulusi Akar, the Turkish defence minister, said he supported the UN peace process, “but these efforts should not restrict our existing ties with our Libyan brothers. Our presence and support to the GNA are based on an invitation, and bilateral agreements and are in conformity with international law provided a window of opportunity for diplomacy.”

Turkey came to the Tripoli government’s aid after the UK, US, Nato, Tunisia and Italy had not responded to written pleas to help repel Haftar’s assault.

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