Mohamed Niss

Mohamed Niss

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The Speaker of Libya’s House of Representatives is obsessed with power.

Just a few weeks after he was elected to his position in August 2014, Agila Saleh, 73, had fellow MPs issue a decree granting him executive powers as head of state including representing Libya on the world stage. A role he knew he could legally enjoy until the presidential elections or until the UN-backed government receives HoR endorsement. And that is why he spent his term making sure none sees the light of day. A few days after the decree was released, he made his first official trip abroad to Egypt where he met its president. And in less than a month, he was in New York representing Libya at the 69th session of the UN General Assembly. He became obsessed with the position of head of state so much so that everything he does or says is designed to prolong his political status and the prestige that comes with it.

Despite huge international support for Libya’s UN-baked government, he managed to single-handedly delay its approval for almost two years. An achievement he managed to pull off thanks to a web of internal and regional alliances which he has masterfully developed.

Agila Saleh at the UN General Assembly, 25 Sep 2014. PHOTO: UN

As he strived to defend his position Mr Saleh developed a bad reputation among members of Libya’s foreign diplomatic corps who branded him as unreliable partner. “All we got from him was lip service and endless empty promises that he would allow a confidence vote on the GNA [Government of National Accord],” one foreign diplomat told The Libya Times. When a group of pro-GNA MPs mustered the required votes to pass the cabinet, he went as far as resorting to bully tactics to prevent a confidence vote. On one occasion MPs were forced to convene at a restaurant after his thugs denied them access to the parliament hall. Some pro-GNA MPs claimed receiving threats from people alleged to be linked to Mr Saleh. On other occasions, he has unjustifiably adjourned official sessions some of which were live broadcast.

The Speaker is also known for his notorious U-turns. A recent interview with Martin Kobler, the former head of United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), revealed that Mr Saleh was directly involved in selecting the members of GNA’s Presidency Council (PC). According to Mr Kobler, it was in fact Mr Saleh who insisted that PC membership is increased to 9 instead of 3. Yet once the names were announced, he went public to trash them as poor choices and demanded UNSMIL to bring back the three-member PC.

Most Libyans stopped taking him seriously after what was probably his most shocking U-turn which saw him partnering with his arch-enemy, Nuri Abusahmain, president of the defunct, Tripoli-based parliament in a bid to undermine the UN-led dialogue process. “Agila has no regional nor political loyalty. He has no ideology and the only item on his agenda is his own political survival,” said a participant of the Skhirat negotiations who spoke to The Libya Times on condition of anonymity.  “He is very cognisant of the fact that once the GNA goes online, he will lose all his executive powers. That’s why he will do anything to prevent that in order to remain in power,” he added.

Saleh (L) Abusahmain (R). PHOTO: Steve Zammit Lupi

The Speaker cultivated influence in Cyrenaica, Libya’s eastern region, by tapping into fears among its population about an Islamist takeover and by presenting himself as a dispensable ally to their hero, Khalia Hifter. Despite his repeated calls on the UN to lift its arms embargo on Hifter’s ‘Libyan National Army’, those who know Mr Saleh claimed that he in private “hates Hifter and sees him as a threat to his throne.” His pro-Hifter statements are designed for domestic consumption.

Agila Saleh (L) attaches a military rank to Khalifa Hifter (R). PHOTO: AFP

The European Union slapped him with travel ban but that wasn’t enough to weaken him. MPs unsuccessfully attempted to depose him by no-confidence vote, while members of the UN-backed dialogue committee think he could be removed by enforcing Article 16 of the Skhirat Agreement. None of these will work unless he was first disarmed of the main weapon in his arsenal which allows to him to mobilize supporters in Cyrenaica; his fake image as a Hifter ally. That or HoR’s highly anticipated move to Benghazi.