by Wayne White
The Libyan Parliament’s abrupt dismissal last week of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan takes Libya another step closer to even greater confusion and instability. With an oil-starved central government also drifting closer to bankruptcy, Libya’s options going forward have become more daunting. If the international community continues to focus elsewhere in the region while Libya merits high-level diplomatic attention, the prospects for finding a way to halt Libya’s decline will worsen.
The latest disruptive snit was triggered by the escape last week of a North Korean-linked tanker from the federalist rebel-controlled eastern Libyan oil terminal of Es-Sider with a cargo of unauthorized crude. Zeidan ordered the government’s puny navy to intercept it and bring it to a government-controlled port. The tanker was hit by Libyan naval gunfire, but eventually escaped amidst poor weather.
Eastern rebels claimed the cargo had reached its destination on March 14, but a Libyan government official said it was still in the Mediterranean on the 15th. Finally, late yesterday, US Special Forces, acting on the request of the Libyan and Cypriot governments, seized the tanker (the “Morning Glory”) from the few armed rebels guarding it just south of Cyprus.
Earlier, however, an angry parliament (despite the government’s weak navy), chose to blame Zeidan, and voted him out of office on March 11 — ordering him to remain in Libya pending charges. On the 12th, Zeidan fled to Europe. Zeidan was replaced by temporary Prime Minster and Defense Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, but only for two weeks while parliament, the General National Council (GNC), casts about for a more permanent figure. Al-Thinni had only been in his defense post since August 2013.
The tanker’s escape triggered such a flap because Tripoli has been trying to isolate and squeeze the shadow eastern government of former anti-Qadhafi rebel leader Ibrahim Jathran. Jathran has been facing rising discontent because the eastern government has been without enough cash to pay government officials, police, and even disaffected Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) workers stationed in the east and assisting in the terminal closures. If the illegally lifted crude had generated payments to new accounts established by Jathran & Co. instead of those of NOC in Tripoli, the funds would have reinforced Jathran’s position.
Meanwhile, on GNC orders, a small contingent of Libyan army troops and a larger force of battle-hardened, notoriously formidable pro-government militiamen from Misrata, Libya’s 3rd largest city, moved east to “liberate” rebellious oil ports and block further illicit shipments. This force compelled Jathran’s troops to fall back from the city of Sirte on the way to Jathran’s area of control on March 11th.
Nonetheless, on the 12th, GNC President Nouri Abu Sahmain, who still wields most of the authority over the military in Libya despite al-Thinni’s appointment, ordered a halt to the advance, giving the eastern rebels “two weeks at most” to restore normal operations at the oil ports before resuming the government’s military advance. The reasons for this reverse were unclear, but the GNC could be skeptical of a successful offensive 200 miles from Sirte to the nearest rebel terminal.
The halt, however, also probably relates to a rivalry between the two powerful militias typically called upon as the government’s military “firemen” (and the GNC factions with which they identify). In addition to the Misrata force, there is the powerful militia from the town of Zintan, south of Tripoli. The Zintani militia has been associated with the parliament’s secular parties. So far, the two militias have not squared off against each other. But that could change if Misrata’s fighters make major gains in the east that boost the power of the GNC’s Islamist wing that the Misrata militia generally supports.
Added to the central government’s own Islamic-secular rivalries that all too often have paralyzed parliament is the threat of going broke. With oil exports down to around 300,000 barrels per day (out of a normal 1.3 million), the government is running low on cash, losing $8 billion in oil revenues last year alone. Al-Thinni declared last week that the government needs an “emergency budget” to deal with its security challenges. Nonetheless, a GNC already unpopular for extending its own mandate last month and gridlocked over lesser matters might not respond despite the gravity of the situation.
Of concern to the international community is that as long as so much of the country remains beyond central authority, a large amount of arms from Qadhafi’s former arsenals will continue flowing across Libya’s borders. A panel of UN experts recently submitted a 97-page report to the Security Council stating that Libya has “become a primary source of illicit weapons.” The panel is investigating alleged shipments to 14 countries. A number of its findings relate to attempts to transfer particularly dangerous shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. One such shipment, stopped by Lebanon, was bound for Syrian rebels.
Moreover, especially lawless portions of Libya like the desert southwest and some areas in the east adjacent to Egypt serve as safe havens for Islamic extremist elements staging from Libyan territory into neighboring states or assisting foreign jihadists. This has been true of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (IQIM) elements lunging into Algeria and Mali, other groups supplying munitions to militant elements in Egypt following the suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood, and shipments into Tunisia aiding terrorist cells there.
In American minds especially, Libya is firmly associated with Muslim extremism, the result of the Benghazi attack of Sept. 2012. Despite the existence of such groups (like eastern Libya’s dangerous Ansar al-Islam), however, in the defining GNC July 2012 elections, the secular National Forces Alliance, a collection of likeminded smaller parties, and dozens of independents dominated, with Islamists coming in second. In fact, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya secured only 10% of the vote.
So, unlike the Brotherhood’s decisive electoral victory in Egypt, a majority of Libyans, at least the first time around, voted against an Islamist-dominated future (and, naturally, were horrified by the Benghazi attack and its adverse implications for ties with the US and the West).
With the GNC’s standing shaky because of its self-extended mandate and legislative paralysis, constitutional drafting to be completed in June, and votes on approving the constitution and a permanent parliament to occur this year, the next six months seems to be a make or break period for what is to become of Libya. There already has been a disturbing indicator. Turnout last month for the election of the constitutional drafting body was dismal, reflecting widespread cynicism toward the entire political process.
A conclave of mostly Western and Arab Gulf foreign ministers to discuss Libya did take place in Rome on March 6. Instability and arms smuggling topped the agenda. US Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed that “Libya is at a pivotal moment,” adding that “Libyans did not risk their lives in the 2011 revolution just to slip backward into thuggery and violence.” Yet, little in terms of concrete measures aimed at stepping up the pace — and urgency — of foreign diplomatic engagement came out of the meeting.
Clearly, the international community is far more focused, in the Middle East at least, on halting the fighting in Syria, pursuing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and trying to push the Iran-nuclear negotiations to the finish line. Sadly, however, the prospects for real progress on the first two of those issues are exceedingly poor. In fact, with Western-Russian relations taking such a beating over the Ukraine crisis, the Russian-US led effort aimed at brokering a Syrian ceasefire — already pretty iffy — might collapse.
In any case, it’s time for Western and Arab governments that came together to support Muammar Qadhafi’s overthrow so robustly to make a strenuous effort to help salvage the mess that has developed since. Under the circumstances, without, say, bringing the various key players in Libya together at a neutral venue like Geneva, there is little reason to believe Libya’s domestic agenda in the coming months will play out as planned.
The interception of the “Morning Glory” could provide an important opportunity for such an initiative. Jathran’s so-called Prime Minister Ab-Rabbo al-Barassi said on the 15th that Jathran was ready to negotiate an end to the oil terminal blockade if the government would end its military threat. Now, with the prospect of his own illicit oil exports gone, an already financially desperate Jathran might be ready for serious talks.
Photo: A rebel under Ibrahim Jathran holds the Cyrenaica flag while standing on a boat at Es Sider port in Ras Lanuf, where a North Korean-flagged tanker had loaded crude oil, March 11, 2014. (AFP)