War in libya: cracks in the government alliance

The head of government in Tripoli dismisses his interior minister. He maintains the government’s most powerful force: the militias from Misrata.

Disappeared from the scene after the dismissal of his minister: Prime Minister Sarradsch Photo: dpa

A long convoy of 300 brand new Toyota jeeps pushed through the after-work traffic jam on Tripoli’s Corniche on Saturday evening. Uniformed officers looked down from the loading platforms with serious expressions at the annoyed passers-by, who acknowledged the huge traffic jam that had formed with shakes of their heads.

A week earlier, shots had been fired not far from the harbor promenade. Young people in the capital had demonstrated against the increasingly rampant corruption of the authorities and the power cuts that lasted for hours – and the militias that control Tripoli responded with violence.

After the end of the siege of Tripoli by General Chalifa Haftar’s eastern Libyan army, which lasted more than a year, the relationship between Tripoli’s defenders and the population also deteriorated dramatically. The Libyan capital had stayed out of the hands of Haftar’s "Libyan National Army" (LNA) largely because of the massive involvement of armed groups from the port city of Misrata, 200 kilometers away. However, even during the war, many Tripolitans were critical of all warring parties.

27-year-old Osama Tawil is one of the people who took to the streets with his friends. "We want those who control Tripoli to finally provide security, good infrastructure and order. I haven’t cared about who does that for a long time," he said on the phone. On the first day of the protest, citizens marching through the city with white flags were fired upon by the Nawasi militia, which is under the Interior Ministry, and some of those arrested are still sitting in their prison cells as alleged Gaddafi supporters.

On Saturday, the prime minister of the unity government, Fajis al-Saraj, removed the interior minister. Fathi Bashaga, who is from Misrata and also serves as defense minister, should face a hearing over the shelling of peaceful protesters, al-Saraj demanded. Bashaga agreed on condition that the questioning be televised live.

Competition in Tripoli

Many observers assume that competition is behind the push against Bashaga. Ironically, the integration of the capital militias into the official security structures had been the 54-year-old Bashaga’s central project to strengthen the government in western Libya, making him an enemy of the capital militias even before that.

In Cairo and Ankara, the capitals of the main regional supporters of the two Libyan parties to the conflict, people look with concern at the cracks in the western Libyan government alliance. Units from Misrata are holding the front against Haftar’s LNA near the city of Sirte-if they go their own way, the current calm will be in jeopardy.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Samih Zhukri called for a return to peace talks Saturday during a visit by the UN Libya Mission (Unmil). Unmil chief Stephanie Williams of the U.S. has warned for weeks that the current cease-fire between eastern and western Libyan groups could collapse at any time without a detailed treaty and an international monitoring mission.

Meanwhile, Fathi Bashaga and the head of the presidential council, Chaled al-Meshri, traveled to Turkey. While Bashaga demonstrated his power even without office with his militia convoy in Tripoli on Saturday, Sarradsch remained off the scene.