By Angus McDowall
TUNIS (Reuters) – Libya’s Fathi Bashagha, who was appointed prime minister by the eastern-based parliament this month, expects to take over government in Tripoli in the coming days without using force, he told Reuters, amid a weeks-long standoff between rival factions.
Abdulhamid al-Dbeibah, who was made interim prime minister a year ago in a U.N.-backed process, has refused to cede power to Bashagha after a planned election collapsed in December and remains ensconced in the capital, backed by some armed groups.
After the election process fell apart, the parliament said Dbeibah’s government had expired and selected Bashagha to head a new transitional period towards elections next year – a move rejected by other factions.
“We have direct contacts with the Libyan west, with Tripoli, the political elite and the leaders of the battalions and some societal figures,” Bashagha said in an interview in Tunis.
“God willing the government will be able to carry out its duties in Tripoli in the coming days.”
Bashagha tried to enter Tripoli three weeks with a large armed convoy ago but turned back as forces aligned with Dbeibah blocked the roads into the capital.
Since then, Libya has been stuck in political deadlock, with both governments saying they are legitimate, fears of new fighting or a territorial division between them, and the U.N. and Western countries trying to revive the failed election.
Bashagha has repeatedly said he will not use force to enter the capital and told Reuters “our arrival in Tripoli and the government headquarters will be completely peaceful”.
He said there were indications from inside Libya and internationally that he would be able to take over in Tripoli and that Dbeibah’s government was not able to operate outside the city.
A spokesman for Dbeibah’s government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Libya has had little peace since a 2011 NATO-backed uprising against Muammar Gaddafi and split in 2014 between warring eastern and western factions that backed rival governments.
Bashagha was interior minister in the then internationally recognised government in Tripoli, and played a role in fending off an assault by the eastern parliament-backed forces under Khalifa Haftar from 2019-20.
After Haftar’s attempt to seize Tripoli failed, the U.N. supported a peace process that included a military ceasefire, steps to integrate Libya’s divided economy and the installation of Dbeibah’s government to unify state institutions and oversee the election in December.
Bashagha said Turkish forces in Libya, invited by the previous Tripoli government but whose presence is rejected by the eastern factions parliament backs, were in the country legally.
“Any military presence is governed by an agreement… we can control it and we can ask these forces to cancel the agreement or leave Libya,” he said.
The U.N. is pushing for elections sooner and wants members from the parliament and another legislative body, the High State Council, to meet and agree a legal and constitutional basis for a vote.
The parliament has not yet joined those talks but Bashagha said he hoped it would send members to the talks to resolve the issues and that he expected elections to take place between 12 or 16 months from now.
Analysts say that if the standoff continues it is likely that disputes over control of the crucial oil sector will come into the open.
Dbeibah’s oil minister has challenged the role of National Oil Corp chairman Mustafa Sanalla. Bashagha said any moves to restructure the board “will cause a big problem for oil production and workers in the oil sector”.
He praised both Sanalla and Central Bank of Libya governor Sadiq al-Kabir, who has been seen as a Dbeibah ally, saying Kabir “has an important role in stability”.
Bashagha said he would only spend money through a budget approved by parliament. The chamber rejected Dbeibah’s budget last year but he was still able to spend money, drawing accusations of corruption, which he has denied.
(Reporting by Angus McDowall, additional reporting by Ahmed Elumami, editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)