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Backdoor deals leave Haftar as Libya’s kingmaker in new Bashagha government

In the seventh go-around to form a unified Libyan government since the 2011 revolution, 92 House of Representatives members voted on Tuesday to grant confidence to the Cabinet of Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha.

However, there remains the potential for further divisions within the already fractured country, after the failure of the roadmap put forward over a year ago by the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum with UN support and the undermining of the electoral process set for December 2021.

On one side, the government of Bashagha is the product of fierce backdoor politicking between members of a tenuous alliance and a contested vote in the eastern-based House. And on the other, the UN-appointed Government of National Unity (GNU) Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbaiba has refused to recognize the new government, accusing the parliament in Tobruk of “forgery” and “breaching the political agreement” and moving to arrest two ministers in Bashagha’s government on Thursday morning ahead of their trip to the east of the country to be sworn in.

Bashagha’s extended government includes three deputies to the prime minister: former MP and former deputy of the GNU Presidential Council Ali al-Qatrani, representing the east; Salem Maatouq al-Zedma, who represents the south; MP Khaled al-Osta representing the west.

The defense portfolio was given to the House of Representatives second deputy speaker MP Ihmeed Houma from the south, the Foreign Ministry to former Libyan Ambassador to the EU Hafez Kadour from Tripoli, the Interior Ministry to Major General Asem Bouzriba from Zawiya, the Finance Ministry to Osama Hammad from the east, and the Justice Ministry to Khaled Massoud Abdrrabu from the east.

The influence of Khalifa Haftar, the former head of the Libyan National Army, in the new government is very clear, marking a return for the eastern military man whose prominence had waned since the June 2020 collapse of the 14-month assault he launched on Tripoli against a united west that included Bashagha — his tenuous ally in the new government — and forces provided by Turkey. Haftar has emerged as kingmaker from the power vacuum left when the UN-appointed roadmap faltered and scheduled elections were not held in December, with two of his supporters, Ali al-Qatrani and Salem Maatouq al-Zedma, gaining positions as deputies to the prime minister and three others appointed to key portfolios: defense, justice and finance.

The alliance between Bashagha, Haftar and House of Representatives Speaker Aguila Saleh, which crystallized anew in recent months, almost fractured in the leadup to Tuesday’s vote due to disagreements between the three sides. Haftar’s sons Belgacem and Saddam played a major role in pushing through the new government formation.

Parliament was supposed to vote on Bashagha’s government on Monday, but the session was postponed due to lack of quorum, as arguments between Bashagha, Saleh and MPs from the south over the deputy prime minister slots and the defense portfolio stormed behind the scenes. Bashagha had to modify the government lineup in the last moments. As a result, Bashagha’s original lineup of a 40-member Cabinet, including two deputies to the prime minister and 30 ministers and eight state ministers, was amended at the last minute.

A source from inside Saleh’s office told Mada Masr that the House speaker objected to Bashagha giving the two deputy positions to Qatrani and Zadema — who are both close to Haftar — because he had wanted to choose the deputy selected from the eastern side. The source said that Saleh was pushing for his right-hand man Abdullah al-Masry, the head of the speaker’s office, to be appointed to this position in order to keep his political influence over the Libyan National Army. However, pressure from Haftar’s sons and bribes given to MPs from the east of the country resulted in the position being granted to Qatrani, who is close to Haftar’s sons, the source said.

Zedma is the brother of Colonel Hasan Maatouq al-Zedma, the head of the 128 Brigade which is under the leadership of the Libyan National Army.

Mada Masr examined recommendations given by 20 MPs from the south advocating for MP Salah Shalabi to be selected as a deputy prime minister in Bashagha’s government, but the influence of Haftar’s sons was strong enough to push through their ally Zadema.

In addition to the two deputy prime ministers, Haftar controls three ministries: the Defense Ministry, which was given to Ihmeed Houma; the Finance Ministry, which was given to Osama Hammad; and the Justice Ministry, which was given to Khaled Massoud Abdrrabu.

Bashagha appointed former Libyan ambassador to the EU and Italy Hafez Kaddour to head the Foreign Ministry, a move that shores up relations relations with key European partners for Libyan affairs. Kaddour Bashagha likewise appointed Brigadier General Essam Abo Zariba to head the Interior Ministry in response to pressure from Ali Abu Zariba, an MP for Zawiya.

Libyan sources with knowledge of Bashagha’s consultations to form the government told Mada Masr that Bashagha had promised to hand the interior portfolio to the head of the Tripoli Revolutionary Brigade, Haitham al-Tajouri, but that he was ultimately compelled to respond to Abo Zariba’s insistence on the interior minister role, promising that Tajouri would be granted financial benefits once the government starts work.

Abu Zariba and Tajouri represent key supporters for Bashagha, who is relying on them to combat opposition and sharp criticism from the west to the deal he cut with Hafar and Saleh and to facilitate his new government working from the government headquarters in Tripoli.

Lawmakers, who were subject to threats by both supporters and opponents to the deal, voted to give confidence to Bashagha’s government in a turbulent session on Tuesday. MPs issued a statement to condemn the threats, saying that they hold the executive authority responsible for ensuring their safety, and demanding that the public prosecutor open an investigation with immediate effect into the incidents, whose perpetrators the statement described as “terrorists and criminals” without naming them directly. Accusations of extortion and of falsifying the vote were exchanged after the vote took place.

Forces opposing the Bashagha-Saleh-Haftar deal were quick to respond, with the GNA asserting that it would continue its work and accusing the head of the House of Representatives of “manufacturing forgery and falsification,” of contravening the political agreement, and of taking unilateral steps to grant confidence to a new government with Bashagha at its head. The statement noted that some MPs had announced that they had not attended or participated in the vote in Tobruk and asserted that the House did not have sole authority to authorize the formation of a new executive branch since the current executive was chosen through an expanded process conducted under the auspices of the United Nations.

Khaled al-Mishry, the head of the High Council of State, likewise accused the House of violating the political accord by granting confidence to the new government. The High Council of State rejects the unilateral steps taken by the House to replace the prime minister and to pass the 12th amendment to the constitutional agreement, Mishry stated. He said the council was set to hold a session on Thursday to “take the necessary steps with regard to these infractions/violations.” Mishry’s Tuesday afternoon statement also said that the ongoing closure of the constitutional circuit of the supreme court was a “contravention of justice.”

The council president had previously supported steps that the House took in isolation, without reference to the United Nations-led process, but had conditioned his support on the House sticking to the route laid out in the constitution before appointing a new prime minister in order to deflect any criticisms of the legislature from political actors in the west.

Before gaining the confidence of the House, Bashagha published a post on his Facebook page announcing that his government would assume power in Tripoli in a peaceful manner and that it had undertaken administrative and legal steps and had communicated with all the relevant security and military bodies, with whom he had made arrangements to assume power in the government HQ in the capital. Bashagha added that he was committing to hold elections after 14 months per a road map agreed upon in the House, a sharp distinction from the June deadline in the map endorsed by the UN.

In response, the GNU said that it would continue to work toward holding elections in June to choose a new legislative and executive branch and to renew the constitution, according to the timeframe set out in the Geneva ceasefire agreement. The GNU said that it would consider any attempt to seize its headquarters as an attack on government premises and an illegitimate claim to power.

Following the vote, international responses were not quick to pour in.

The United Nations Special Mission in Libya expressed concern “over reports that yesterday’s vote in the House of Representatives fell short of the expected standards of transparency and procedures and included acts of intimidation prior to the session.”

Moscow welcomed the formation of the new government headed by Bashagha, hoping to build friendly cooperation relations with it to move towards a “comprehensive political settlement” in Libya. Russian foreign ministry considered it an “important step” to overcome the protracted crisis in Libya on the basis of reaching a “national agreement within a comprehensive intergovernmental dialogue.”

On Thursday morning, the situation escalated when the GNU closed the airspace in Tripoli and foreign and culture ministers from the Bashaga Cabinet who were planning to travel to Tobruk to take the oath before the House of Representatives were arrested. The culture minister was later released. Bashagha laid responsibility for the arrests at the feet of Dbaiba. The National Oil Corporation also publicly announced that exports would be suspended due to “bad weather,” but the GNU Petroleum Ministry said that they had not been informed of the move and that the weather did not warrant such a closure.

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