By Sami Zaptia.
London, 29 August 2020:
The political fallout of last week’s demonstrations against living conditions is threatening to unravel the internationally recognized Libyan government led by Faiez Serraj and based in Tripoli.
The demonstrations that started last week have had a centrifugal effect on the weak, domestically illegitimate, and mandate-less Tripoli government.
On the face of it, the split is about demonstrators failing to gain authorisation for their demonstrations through law 65/2012. Added to the legitimate excuse that with a Coronavirus pandemic this is not the time for demonstrations, Serraj wanted his aligned security forces to stop the demonstrators coming out. His Interior Minister, and former Misratan militia leader, Fathi Bashagha, with an eye on his ‘‘select me as the more effective replacement for Faiez Serraj’’ campaign, chose to verbally support the demonstrators and provided them with protection.
The contrasting standpoint of the two has led to splits along numerous axis and led to an existential threat to the Tripoli government. Bashagha has publicly challenged Serraj and further weakened him personally and his government. He also suddenly turned up in Turkey. Critics say he was lobbying for support in this particular crisis, and for support as Serraj’s replacement.
Serraj reacted by suspending Bashagha yesterday (Decree 562/2020), referring him to investigation and ordering him to report to the Presidency Council to explain his actions and statements that conflicted with the official government line. Bashagha, countered by releasing an official reply in which he welcomed this investigation and meeting – but challenged Serraj to conduct it live on air!
The news was met by celebrations, including firing guns in the air and fireworks, by Tripoli militias opposed to Bashagha and, at this moment and on this issue, supporting Serraj. They have occupied Martyr square to prevent demonstrators occupying it.
In turn, Bashagha demonstrators have come out in his hometown Misrata in his support. His aligned Interior Ministry forces / Misratan militias have gone on motorcades to central Tripoli, taunting the pro Serraj militias, especially the Nawasi militia. It is the Nawasi that is now suspected of shooting at the demonstrators at the beginning of the week.
Serraj issues a flurry of decrees
Sensing he was losing what little support he has enjoyed since arriving in Tripoli in 2016 and what he gained in facing off the Khalifa Hafter attack on Tripoli, Serraj has fired off what seems like a record number of decrees within a 24-hour period.
Besides the one suspending Bashagha, Serraj issued six other decrees.
1-Decree 563/2020 empowered the Joint Security Force with the responsibility of imposing security in Tripoli.
2-He then issued what has been widely lambasted as cheap and ‘‘too little too late’’ sedatives in decree 564/2020 which activates the payment of the Wife and Child Allowance law. This law (Law 27) was passed in 2013.
3-The next sedative used in an attempt to release pressure and soak anger from the street by Serraj was (Decree 567/2020) offering jobs to unemployed university graduates. It is seen as regressive in that it further encourages handing out state-sector jobs rather than training youth in entrepreneurship in the private sector. It calls on the Central Bank of Libya to make the necessary funds available for this, yet Libya is going through a financial crisis and funds are not available.
The decree also papers over a reality that the Serraj government does not have money, is in a continuous fight with the Tripoli Central Bank of Libya (CBL) to gain funds and that the CBL decides what money it can have access to. The CBL has been making its own decisions on what money to release to the government – especially funds from its reserves.
It also presumes that the demonstrations are led and conducted mainly by university graduates. It precludes a big cohort of Libyan youth with no university degrees – which are the ones more likely to demonstrate and have less prospects.
4-Decree 565/2020 issued by Serraj forms a committee to review all the money spent by the Health Ministry in 2019-20. This decree is an acknowledgement of the suspected and generally perceived corruption in the Ministry. The public are in dismay at the huge budget received to fight the Coronavirus, which dwarfs Tunisia’s budget – yet the virus is out of control in Libya.
5-Decree 566/2020 appoints Salah-al-Deen Namroush as the new Defence Minister.
6-In his role as the Supreme Commander of the Libyan Army, Serraj issued Decree 47/2020 appointing Mohamed Hadad as the new Chef of Staff.
The Serraj government, propped up by international community recognition, was always an uneasy coalition with local militias barely brought on board to keep it going. The hope was that with time, the ‘‘frigate government’’, as critics refer to the Serraj government because Serraj first arrived in Tripoli onboard a frigate boat, would gain domestic legitimacy through being effective in providing services. It failed miserably.
The government had to depend on militias for enforceability and overtime, rather than incorporating the militias into the government and state structure, the militias have incorporated the government into them.
Bashagha v the rest of the militias
Ironically, the militias have regarded Bashagha as an enemy ever since he became Interior Minister in October 2018 because of his attempts to undermine and dissolve them and replace them with security forces, particularly police, answerable directly to him as minister of the interior. These are the status quo militias who fear a change in the order. They fear an overthrow of Serraj, his Presidency Council and Skhirat agreement may undermine them. They fear the unknown a new order may bring with it. They have prospered from the current status quo under Serraj.
What could happen next?
It is not clear what will happen next. There are many domestic and international dynamics at play. Domestically, the rest of the Skhirat-created Presidency Council seems to be holding a united front. Serraj has posted at least two photos over the last 24-hours of the rest of the Presidency Council meeting together. It does not happen often.
Will Serraj survive the demonstrations and the resultant ruptures? It depends. The four-day 24-hour curfew will end Monday and the general public will then be able to go out and about. Will the demonstrators resume their protests? It is likely that they will. The underlining causes of the demonstrations; power and water cuts, fuel and cash shortages, lack of prospects and hope – are all still there.
Will the pro Serraj militias try to stop them using excessive force? Will the pro Bashagha forces try to support the demonstrators and counter any force used against the demonstrators? Will this lead to direct clashes between militias and will other militias pile in on either side? All this could happen, but no doubt the international community, including Turkey, will be mediating in the background and trying to bring the temperature down.
The Skhirat LPA
Politically it has to be asked; has Skhirat Libyan Political Agreement run its course. It does not take a political genius to conclude that it has failed. Can it survive this latest political rupture? The international community like the political status quo when it comes to the roadmap. Their decisions seem to be based on not being able to come up with an alternative. Is that acceptable for Libya and Libyans any longer?
Ironically and inadvertently, Serraj has now made Bashagha the demonstrators’ hero. He has also made him a hero in Misrata and may have unified Misrata against the Presidency Council.
Hafter and Saleh watching Tripoli?
The whole political ordeal has put the issue of the oil blockade and the ceasefire and political negotiations with eastern Libya on the backburner. Does it make a deal more likely or less? Saleh and Hafter must be rubbing their hands in glee as they watch the Tripoli coalition crumble. Do they sit it out and buy time and hope the Tripoli administration implodes from within and wait to pick up the pieces?
The next few days may be telling. Bashagha has agreed to come for questioning in the full glare of public opinion. Serraj, it is noted, only suspended, and not sacked him. Can he sack him? How will Bashagha, his aligned militias and Misrata react?