Libya’s presidential council suspended its interior minister for allegedly encouraging anti-corruption protests, a move that threatens to escalate a power struggle in the months after a devastating war.
The internationally-recognized government said in a statement late Friday that Fathi Bashagha had been removed pending an investigation. Bashagha responded by saying he will co-operate, as long as the hearing is held in public.
Tripoli, the Libyan capital, recently emerged from a 14-month siege by the forces of eastern military commander Khalifa Haftar, who’s backed by Russia, Egypt and the U.A.E, before a Turkish intervention helped repel his troops. The North African country is now divided between the rival camps, with its economy in tatters and protests taking place over deteriorating services and graft.
What Lies Behind the Nine Years of Turmoil in Libya: QuickTake
Bashagha, who is seen by Western diplomats as a capable partner in tackling lawless militias that have infiltrated state institutions, had pledged to defend the protesters after members of the Nawasi group cracked down on a demonstration last week, wounding several and detaining dozens.
Tackling the powerful but unpopular militias and corruption had been a key demand of Haftar and his backers, but also of Western countries such as the U.S. that had been working with Bashagha on security reforms. He had particularly targeted the Nawasi, which is meant to be under his ministry’s control but acts independently.
The decision by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj to suspend Bashagha was met with celebrations overnight by militia members, and some protests in Bashagha’s home city of Misrata.
“It’s the return of the spat between the Nawasis and Bashagha from a few months ago -- we knew it would circle back after the war,” said Tarek Megerisi, a Libya expert and policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “There’s also a political layer. Sarraj hears whispers going around from the international community that they wish they had Bashagha to deal with.”
The U.S. embassy said it appreciates its partnerships with Sarraj and Bashagha and urged cooperation.
Two officials close to Sarraj, who has accused the protesters of lawlessness, said Bashagha had gone beyond his mandate as a minister. One of them said Bashagha alienated the militias rather than patiently trying to absorb them, an approach he said could have led to battles in Tripoli.
Bashagha’s supporters say the militias had become too entrenched and were acting as a parallel state.
©2020 Bloomberg L.P.