Sarraj names new defence minister as Bashagha returns from Turkey

The head of Libya’s Government on National Accord (GNA) on Saturday appointed a new defence minister and army chief, after the “suspension” of Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha amid street protests against poor public services and living conditions.

The decrees followed the announcement hours earlier by the GNA that it had “temporarily suspended” its interior minister, Fathi Bahshagha, after militia gunmen fired on peaceful demonstrators last week.

Analysts described the reshuffles as part of a preemptive move by GNA chief Fayez al-Sarraj against a feared coup by the interior minister.

In the new reshuffles, Sarraj promoted deputy and acting defence minister Salah Eddine al-Namrush at the helm of the ministry of defence and appointed General Mohammad Ali al-Haddad as head of the army.

Haddad hails from Misrata, 200 kilometres east of Tripoli, the home of powerful armed groups that have fought on the side of the GNA in the battle against Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the Libyan National Army (LNA), who tried to seize the capital last year.

The appointments come days after street demonstrations in Tripoli and other western Libyan cities.

Hundreds of protesters staged rallies from Sunday in Tripoli against corruption and extended shortages of power, water and fuel in the oil-rich North African country. Gunmen fired on crowds on several occasions.

In response, the GNA said Interior Minister Fathi Bashagha “has been temporarily suspended” pending an inquiry “on his statements about the protests and incidents in Tripoli and other cities”.

Bashagha, who was visiting the GNA’s main backer Turkey, said in a statement posted on the interior ministry’s Facebook page early on Saturday that he was ready to submit to an investigation.

But he demanded any hearing be broadcast live for the sake of transparency.

Upon his return to Tripoli on Saturday evening, Bashagha told a crowd of supporters at the Mitiga airport: “I am ready to be questioned. I have nothing to hide.”

“Everyday life in Libya is painful,” he said, blaming hardships in the country on “corruption in all sectors”.

Security forces commanders and supporters of the suspended interior minister had thronged the airport in a show of force by Bashagha’s allies on his return home.

There is no clear outcome to the power struggle in Tripoli with the situation being muddled further by the United States keeping an equal distance between Sarraj and Bashagha. Washington lauded Saturday its close partnership with the GNA’s prime minister and his interior minister.

“U.S. supports rule of law, appreciates close partnerships with PM Sarraj and MOI Bashagha and urges cooperation in the interests of providing good governance to the Libyan people,” the U.S. embassy said on Twitter.

The United Nations on Saturday voiced alarm over what it called “a dramatic turn of events” in Libya’s civil war, after the power struggle between leaders of the Tripoli-based government.

“Libya is witnessing a dramatic turn of events that underlines the urgent need to return to a full and inclusive political process,” the U.N. support mission in Libya said.

This article was republished with permission from the Arab Weekly.