Man Sworn in As Libya's New Leader Speaks Out On His Fight for Recognition

Former Libyan Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha was sworn in last week as his country's new premier by the House of Representatives in what the parliament saw as a step toward rebuilding their embattled nation.

But hundreds of miles west, along the Mediterranean shore of a North African nation beset by conflict and crises for more than a decade, Abdul Hamid al-Dbeibah, another man who claims the title of prime minister, one still recognized by the international community, rejected the move as illegitimate.

Such has begun yet another setback for longstanding efforts to unify Libya, a country still living in the tumultuous wake of a rebellion backed by the U.S.-led NATO alliance to oust longtime leader Muammar el-Qaddafi in 2011. His unceremonious execution at the hands of the opposition, streamed worldwide on the internet, was widely celebrated at the time as heralding the start of a new era for this strategically important North African country, one free from the strongman who dominated Libyan politics for more than 40 years.

What came next, however, was the rise of warlords, jihadi insurgencies and political infighting that continues to plague Libya, dividing it largely between the capital Tripoli, where Dbeibah and his Government of National Unity sit, and the city of Tobruk, where the House of Representatives' authority rests. When long-awaited elections did not arrive in December, the Tobruk side declared Dbeibah's mandate null and void, ultimately choosing Bashagha to guide Libya toward a national vote.

Speaking to Newsweek, Bashagha made the case for his position as it comes under challenge by both Dbeibeh and Libya's High State Council advisory body.

"The government I have formed came about as a direct result of the previous government's failure to hold transparent elections," Bashagha said. "I have committed to holding both presidential and parliamentary elections within the timeframe agreed upon between HOR and HSC."

As an added assurance that he did not seek to seize power through undemocratic means, Bashagha said he has "also pledged not to run to ensure the elections' transparency and neutrality."

"Planning elections in Libya means launching a number of initiatives including national reconciliation, economic reforms and biometric systems to secure voter data," Bashagha said. "These elections will take effort and collaboration, but I am committed to seeing this process through."

Amid fears that the latest schism could return Libya to a period of active conflict only recently quieted in October 2020, Bashagha vowed not to resort to violence to impose his will, even if Tripoli refuses to concede.

"We will not take part in any violent acts," Bashagha said. "It has been proven that the solutions in Libya come through political agreements and dialogue. I intend to pursue collaboration and transparency to move our country forward."

In an effort to allay fears of such violence, Bashagha and Dbeibah's teams met on Friday, but failed to reach a lasting resolution. And the recent mobilization of armed factions loyal to both sides has sparked fears the country may once again be plunged into civil war.

Fathi, Bashagha, Libya, Tobruk, prime, minister
Fathi Bashagha, designated as Libya's prime minister by the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, speaks during a recorded address on March 1, days before taking an oath not recognized by the country's internationally recognized government in Tripoli. "I assure all Libyans that the government will assume its duties in the capital, Tripoli, in a peaceful and secure manner," Bashagha said. Fathi Bashagha

Though Bashagha's mandate currently lies in the east, his own roots are in the country's west, in the port city of Misrata, far closer to Tripoli. Once considered to be the trade capital of Libya, Bashagha himself worked in the import-export field after leaving the Libyan Air Force of the Qaddafi era.

After the uprising began, Bashagha joined the revolutionary military council of his hometown, from which a number of Islamist militias would emerge in support of the Tripoli government and its Italian, Turkish and Qatari backers.

As he was close with a number of Misrata's armed factions, Bashagha backed the central United Nations-installed government, as it went to war in 2014 with the locally elected House of Representatives. That organization enjoyed the firepower of the influential Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army, along with varying degrees of support from Egypt, France, Russia and the United Arab Emirates, among others.

Bashagha remained for years in the camp of the Tripoli-based Government of National Unity, known until last March as the Government of National Accord, and accepted the position of interior minister in 2018. But his relationship with then-Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj soured, and Bashagha was suspended in August 2020 after his security forces were accused of firing on protesters during a demonstration in the capital.

As last year's attempt to hold nationwide elections progressed, Bashagha formed a coalition with House of Representatives leader Aguila Saleh Issa, while Dbeibah sided with Libyan Presidential Council Chair Mohammad Menfi. Dbeibah's list topped Bashagha's 39 votes to 34 in a process hosted by the U.N.-backed Libyan Political Dialogue Forum. But the actual election was postponed by Libya's High National Electoral Commission, citing a disagreement over the process and continued unrest leading up to the planned vote.

Dbeibah has since outlined a plan to delay elections until June, but the House of Representatives has argued the Libyan premier's term effectively expired when elections failed to transpire. Though Dbeibah still retains the U.N.'s recognition, frustrations in Libya continue to mount, and at least three ministers have already resigned from the Tripoli administration over yet another failure to form a lasting post-Qaddafi leadership.

Despite Qaddafi's death having put a violent end to the self-proclaimed colonel's reign more than 10 years ago, the "brotherly leader" still looms large in the national consciousness of a Libya lacking any enduring replacement.

In fact, among the nearly 100 aspiring presidential candidates, including Haftar, whom Newsweek was unable to reach for comment, are Qaddafi's second son, Saif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, who survived the civil war and ultimately received a pardon from the House of Representatives for alleged crimes committed as a key figure in his father's government.

Qaddafi's ticket continues to spark controversy, having been rejected and then reinstated, as Libya continues to come to grip with its past, present and future in the absence of unified leadership.

Qaddafi — whose name is alternatively spelled in a variety of ways, including Gaddafi and Gadhafi, the latter of which Saif al-Islam told Newsweek he preferred back in 2007—did not respond to Newsweek's request for comment in time for publication.

Bashagha, for his part, told Newsweek he saw "several factors" contributing to Libya's inability to recover from crisis since the elder Qaddafi was ousted, "the most important of which is Libya's lack of infrastructure in some sectors."

"This made the recovery period after the fall of the Gaddafi regime much longer than that of Tunisia and Egypt, for example, in addition to negative foreign intervention at times," Bashagha said.

"We are committed to moving Libya forward," he added, "by rebuilding our internal infrastructures and important alliances with our international partners who can support this important journey."

Looking beyond Libya's borders, Bashagha said he looked forward to cultivating relations with the West, among others, restoring his country's position as an oil and gas player, and working with all nations that do not meddle in Libya's internal affairs.

"Libya has crucial partnerships with several countries including the U.S. and Europe," Bashagha said. "For the first time in 10 years there will be a serious investment in the energy sector in Libya to raise production and contribute positively to the international market. There will be a clear strategy for cooperation with countries that respect Libya's sovereignty and that do not participate in any negative activities inside Libyan soil."

But Bashagha's prospects for success in the energy sector appear uncertain, as Libya's National Oil Corporation suspended operations at the country's two largest oil fields earlier this week after claiming that an armed group led by a local militia leader shut down critical valves. Fears that furthest unrest may ensue are amplified by the ominous nature of the rivalry between Dbeibah and Bashagha.

Both men have already survived apparent assassination attempts, Dbeibah just last month and Bashagha in December 2019 and February 2021. Now reports have emerged of militias loyal to both sides preparing for potential confrontation as Dbeibah refuses to cede power.

Dbeibah's office did not respond to Newsweek's request for comment. Libya's embassy in Washington said it was "unable to provide a comment" and did "not have the contact information for the Prime Minister."

Libya, Prime, Minister, Dbeibah, March, 2
Libyan Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah addresses the country during a March 2 televised address in which he dismissed the House of Representative's efforts to name Fathi Bashagha as prime minister as a "conspiracy" without legitimacy. "I promise you that we are closer to the elections than ever before," Dbeibah said. Libyan Government of National Unity

With further turmoil likely, the United Nations remains a key force in potentially resolving the dispute between the two men and their respective administrations. U.S. diplomat Stephanie Williams is in position to do so, serving as the Secretary General's special adviser on Libya.

She told Newsweek, however, that this issue was a Libyan one, one that ultimately required a Libyan solution.

"The United Nations is not in the business of recognizing or endorsing governments," Williams said. "Such recognition is a sovereign matter decided upon by member states and in some instances, the U.N. Security Council."

She indicated that, absent elections, neither the Tripoli or Tobruk administrations had a true mandate from a population longing to have its own voice heard, as evidenced by the enthusiasm expressed by citizens to actually participate in choosing their next leader for the first time.

"All of the current institutions in Libya lack popular legitimacy," Williams said. "The only solution is through the ballot box, and this is the overwhelming demand of the Libyan people."

"That is why nearly three million Libyans, out of an overall population of approximately seven million, registered to vote," she added, "in addition to the fact that over five thousand candidates filed papers to run as candidates in the parliamentary elections, and almost one hundred Libyans filed to run for the presidential race."

As for Bashagha, who hopes to preside over this process, Williams stated that he was "a national figure and his achievements speak for themselves, including his service as Interior Minister in the previous government during which war was waged against the capital."

Williams said she was offering to use her position to mediate in the dispute between Bashagha and Dbeibah in order to help finally usher in a new age of stable leadership that has eluded Libya since Qaddafi's downfall.

"I have offered the good offices of the United Nations to mediate a resolution to the crisis over control of the executive authority," Williams said. "I have also announced an initiative to convene a joint committee of the House of Representatives and the High Council of State to establish a sound constitutional basis in order to take the country to national elections as soon as possible."

"National reconciliation and transitional justice are key goals along Libya's pathway to recovery," she added, "after more than a decade of division, conflict and chaos."

Libya, map, areas, control, September, 2021
A map of Libya created by the Congressional Research Service shows areas of areas of control within Libya as of September 2021, including those of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives-aligned Libyan National Army led Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and the internationally recognized Tripoli-based government that opposes it. Congressional Research Service