by Wayne White
An ominous deterioration in the situation in Libya recently has been overshadowed by media stories about the Oct. 27 “60 Minutes” report on the Benghazi tragedy featuring a witness now known to have given conflicting evidence to the FBI. Meanwhile, developments in Libya reflect a sharp decline in the already tenuous authority of the central government, heightened violence, clashes between militias, as well as new demands for regional autonomy and minority rights already impacting seriously on Libyan oil and gas exports. Libya now could be drifting closer to what might be called a “failed state” scenario in terms of governance.
Continued, rising lawlessness over the past month has been evident across the country. Illustrating how little authority the police and army have in eastern Libya, the former rebel “Benghazi Brigade” announced on Oct. 22 its arrest of several men allegedly behind weekly car bombings in the city, including three Chadians. A Libyan military source called the detention a “theatrical act” in which armed groups like the one involved in this action “are trying to show…they can replace the army.”
Also in the east, militiamen from the al-Zawiya tribe seized up to 200 Egyptian drivers and demanded the release of associates being held in Egypt for weapons smuggling. On Oct. 18, gunmen murdered the head of the military police’s investigative division outside his vacation home in Benghazi, the day before the same happened to a local army commander in the eastern city of Derna, and two Libyan soldiers were stabbed to death during a militia attack on their base nearby.
The security situation in the capital of Tripoli also has skidded downward in the wake of the brief kidnapping of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan on Oct. 10 by supposedly government-supported militiamen. Last week there were two outbreaks of heavy fighting (including the use of truck mounted anti-aircraft guns) between rival militias. The Nov. 7 battle began when fighters from a powerful militia in nearby Misrata entered Tripoli to avenge the death two days before of a militia leader from that militia-dominated city (Libya’s 3rd largest) still not under central government authority. With militias on the rampage, many Tripoli residents have armed themselves, and some have erected street barricades to block militiamen from entering their neighborhoods.
Triggers of militia violence are varied and unpredictable: personal vendettas, territory, stolen vehicles, and disputes over smuggled goods including drugs. Although the government tried to harness militias to function as security forces subject to the authorities, most report mainly to their own leaders. On Nov. 10, Zeidan called for a popular effort to compel the militias to disarm peacefully, something unlikely to succeed. And perhaps setting in place a trigger for a future outbreak of violence, Zeidan stated that government payments to militias operating beyond police and army authority would end on Dec. 31.
It comes as no surprise that Libya’s critical oil sector also has been in crisis for several months now, with 2 million barrels per day of normal exports falling to only a few hundred thousand. In the east, militias charged with protecting terminals and fields, joined by oil workers, for several months have squeezed or even blocked exports to pressure the government for various political and work-related concessions. Over the weekend they instituted a de-facto export blockade.
Off in the west, Berber protesters demanding minority rights seized Libya’s large Mellitah natural gas and oil complex on the coast 50 miles west of Tripoli last month. Mellitah is the terminus of the vital Greenstream pipeline operated jointly by Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) and the Italian Eni. Yesterday, the Berbers shut it down, cutting off the flow of natural gas to Italy.
Back east, militia-associated elements seeking eastern autonomy, a fair regional share of oil revenues, and holding all key export terminals in the region announced on Nov. 3 the unilateral formation of an eastern regional “Government of Barqa.” On the 10th, this shadowy government established a companion oil company based temporarily in Tobruk to market Libyan crude independent of Libya’s NOC. Under the more relaxed pre-Qadhafi rule of King Idris, Barqa was a semi-autonomous eastern region. Quite a few eastern Libyans reportedly are skeptical of this move, however, because they believe the “autonomy” effort is meant merely to serve the narrower agendas of particular militias.
Nonetheless, the militias have the power, and the central government in Tripoli has had to implore foreign companies not to purchase oil from entities or militias instead of NOC. Prime Minister Zeidan also announced on the 10th that with hydrocarbon exports imperiled, the Libyan government could be unable to cover its expenditures beginning in either December or January if export problems cannot be resolved (especially those in the east).
Not surprisingly, foreign confidence in Libya’s hydrocarbon sector is fading fast. ExxonMobil already has greatly reduced its activity in Libya, with Marathon considering the sale of its portion of a joint venture with the Libyans. And BP has begun talks to relinquish its stake in a large joint natural gas explorations project with NOC. Separate entities holding major terminals turning away foreign tankers in recent days will only frighten foreign investors that much more.
Libyan instability overall also has adverse implications for neighboring countries. In addition to the gun-running into Egypt noted earlier, the remote and lawless Libyan southeast provides a convenient haven for elements linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and similar extremist groups that have raided into Mali and Algeria. Farther north on Oct. 30, a suicide bomber struck in the Tunisian resort city of Sousse. Another bomber was apprehended in a nearby seaside town along with five more plotters nabbed in Sousse that Tunisia’s Islamist government said were members of the radical Ansar al-Sharia movement. All those caught were Tunisians, but they reportedly sortied from Libya, where Tunisian extremists evidently have exploited disorder even in the north not far from Tripoli to obtain training, explosives and arms.
The iffy authority of the Libyan government and the power of the militias have hurt prospects for Western assistance aimed at stabilization because the central government in Tripoli is not a viable partner. Several NATO countries, including the US and the UK, want to train at least some legitimate security and military personnel, but there is concern that even these could end up behaving like militias or strengthen in a destabilizing manner only the security side of the government. In any case, British training will not begin until early next year, and Washington has not made a final decision on plans to train Libyan cadres outside Libya.
With war-weariness dominating Western thinking concerning regional intervention, no government is seriously pondering direct military involvement. As a result, the prospects for Libya seem grim. No real progress — instead quite the opposite — has come from purely domestic attempts to sort out Libya’s many problems since Muammar Qadhafi’s fall two years ago, so Libyan efforts to address this deteriorating situation do not seem likely to gain meaningful traction.
One of Libya’s Berber militiamen blocking the gas and crude oil complex in Nalut. Credit: Karlos Zurutuza/IPS