Post-War Libya Needs Wider News Coverage

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by Wayne White

In just the past five days, stability in Libya has suffered further setbacks. Yet chronic civil disorder and unrest may seem secondary as many outside observers focus too narrowly, for example, on the status of Libyan oil exports. Then there are human rights and judicial organizations typically focusing on high profile cases while justice is meted out to millions of Libyans through the barrel of a gun amidst degrading central authority. This complex crisis demands more consistently broad-based coverage.

Libya’s parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), ordered interim Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni on April 8 to form another government, ignoring his request for greater powers sorely needed to govern more effectively. Instead, on April 13 al-Thinni resigned “his temporary position,” citing an attack against his family residence that had been a “near miss.”

Al-Thinni was appointed interim prime minister only last month after the GNC dismissed veteran Prime Minister Ali Zeidan. The cause for Zeidan’s removal was, essentially, a GNC temper tantrum over his inability to stop a tanker with unauthorized crude from escaping an eastern oil port controlled by the defiant federalist eastern warlord Ibrahim Jathran. The tanker later would be snared by the US Navy and delivered to a port under central government control. Zeidan, however, a resilient figure who had stayed on despite being kidnapped by a militia last year, was gone. Now, with al-Thinni pulling out, Libya’s shaky central government is more rudderless than ever.

In the latest Libyan violence, gunmen kidnapped Jordanian Ambassador Fawaz al-Itan in Tripoli on April 14, shooting his driver. Kidnappers are demanding that Jordan release Libyan extremist Mohammed Dersi, sentenced to life imprisonment in 2007 for plotting to bomb Amman International Airport. This is just the most recent example of an ongoing wave of kidnappings (and killings).

So far this year, 5 Egyptian diplomats, a Tunisian diplomat, and a South Korean trade official have been seized. Ongoing assassinations of officials, individual Libyans, and foreigners also continue. Last December an American teacher was murdered in Benghazi; in January, a British man and New Zealand woman were shot execution style in western Libya; in February, 7 Egyptian Christians were shot in the east. Meanwhile, a number of Libyan security officials, soldiers, and other government personnel continue to be killed in ambushes.

Nonetheless, organizations like the International Criminal Court and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have zeroed in on the trial of two sons of Muammar Qadhafi, notorious Qadhafi regime intelligence chief Abdullah al-Sanussi, and a few dozen other Qadhafi cronies. These organizations are concerned about the fairness of Libyan justice toward such unpopular figures. Libyan Justice Minister Saleh al-Meghani said the trial would not be a “Mickey Mouse” show trial, and declared: “I will not allow any crazy stuff; I will make sure it meets international standards…; that is why we are having open trials.”

With quite a few defendants still without legal counsel, HRW’s Richard Dicker declared, “This…has been riddled with procedural flaws…,” making it “grossly unfair to the defendants.” The trial adjourned to finish preparations and address shortcomings only hours after it opened on April 14. There are legitimate concerns at this stage, but the government knows the vast majority of Libyans expect a measure of closure regarding the leading figures of such a loathsome regime.

Meanwhile there is a complete absence of functioning courts across much of Libya, with various militias having far more influence than Tripoli upon how local affairs are run. But this yawning legal vacuum, with extra-judicial kidnappings and shootings of many innocents frightfully common, apparently only warrants mention in occasional oversight reports.

The most concentrated of general media coverage involves careful reporting on Libyan hydrocarbon exports — some outlets featuring, say, 2 or 3 reports on Libyan oil and gas reaching markets for every piece on the internal situation writ large. On April 15 the first tanker since last year was lifting crude from one of the two smaller of Libya’s four eastern oil terminals under Jathran’s control. The other small terminal Jathran promised to reopen back on April 6 has not yet been returned to National Oil Corporation (NOC) control. The status of the two largest ones depend on progress in further talks between the central government, the NOC, and Jathran over his various demands.

Indeed, the overall Libyan oil situation remains iffy. With all Western Libyan oil outlets also closed (save for the export and refinery complex at Zawiya including Libya’s 2nd largest refinery), plus the two largest in the east, matters still look grim. Late last week, protestors closed the Zawiya facility too, preventing two tankers from loading. The Zawiya complex reopened on April 13 after NOC officials reportedly resolved most of the issues involved. With some closed facilities in disrepair, and most oil fields still outside NOC control, some terminals can export only what previously had accumulated in their storage tanks.

As the Ukraine crisis has escalated, Europe’s need for energy exports from Libya has grown and so, of course, has legitimate interest. The majority of Libyan gas and oil exports have been down steeply for quite some time. Italy, with its government-affiliated National Hydrocarbons Entity (ENI) geared to Libyan crude and immensely dependent on Russian, Algerian and Libyan natural gas, is especially hopeful Libya will come back online in all respects.

Libyan gas and oil exports, however, will remain unreliable, and proper justice for most Libyans, whether prominent or not, will be illusive until fundamental issues of national unity, governance, and security can be addressed effectively. Perhaps the rising criticality of Libyan energy exports amidst the Ukraine crisis can motivate the US, NATO and EU governments to work with leading Libyan powerbrokers to initiate far more serious engagement aimed at breaking new ground toward grappling meaningfully with the most debilitating sources of internal discord.

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Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.

One Comment

  1. Where were the experts in the planning stages before overthrowing Qaddafi? Who ever they were, should be fired, along with the idiots who don’t seem to know anything besides bomb, destroy, screw everything up beyond fixing. The costs have to come om somewhere, but it sure won’t be from oil/gas revenues. Sad.

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