by Wayne White
Instability and danger drove the international community to leave Libya to its own devices back in 2012, but Libya’s internal woes have only worsened. NATO and its regional allies hoped spillover from Libyan strife could be kept to a minimum. Yet containment, not much of a coherent strategy in any case, has produced only limited success. Since there is no end in sight to Libya’s travails, the coalition that did so much heavy lifting to oust Muammar Qadhafi should explore whether external mediation can help his successors.
While seemingly endless rehashing of the September 2012 Benghazi attack continues to consume American political and media attention, Libya itself staggers from crisis to crisis, all woefully unreported. For weeks, Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and self-proclaimed eastern regional government chief Ibrahim al-Jathran have been involved in a face-off. Three key export terminals (west of the large eastern city of Benghazi) seized by Jathran last August have remained closed, cutting oil exports by more than a third. This has been compounded by closures elsewhere, reducing exports by about half, starving the shaky central government of much needed revenue.
Talks between the two sides continue, but so far without closure. Jathran, a former anti-Qadhafi rebel hero, has demanded a return to a regional oil revenue sharing ratio more favorable to the east that was in place during the pre-Qadhafi era, greater federalism to boost regional power, an inquiry into oil corruption, and an independent committee to oversee exports.
Meanwhile, parallel maneuvering continues. Several weeks ago Jathran tried to initiate exports directly to foreign markets bypassing Tripoli, but that was aborted when the government’s small navy fired warning shots toward a Maltese tanker seeking to load. For his part, Zeidan late last year negotiated the reopening of a major western Libyan oil field — closed by protesters — increasing Libyan oil that is getting out. In recent days, Zeidan also has been negotiating with a faction east of Jathran’s main area of control near Benghazi, hoping to reopen the Marsa al-Hariga terminal closer to the Egyptian border.
Both Zeidan and Jathran have their own separate problems. Some tribes previously supportive of Jathran’s eastern federalist cause have been grumbling that he is little more than a power hungry warlord, his shadow “cabinet” barely functions, and an Islamist leader within Jathran’s leadership quit at the end of 2013. Just today a Benghazi school was bombed, presumably by Ansar al-Sharia fanatics who remain at large in the city.
Unable to export oil independently because of the government’s naval presence and jitters among foreign buyers, Jathran’s regional government remains unfunded. Since late last month, formerly pro-Jathran Petroleum Facilities Guards at the closed terminals have been protesting his failure to replace their lost government pay.
Zeidan, from a small liberal party, has been beset with problems on various fronts. The two leading factions in Libya’s parliament, the General National Council (GNC), want to replace him, but these nationalists on the one hand and Islamists on the other cannot agree on a candidate. Last week four Islamists resigned from Zeidan’s cabinet. Last Wednesday unknown assailants attempted to assassinate Zeidan’s Deputy Prime Minister in Tripoli, which remains the scene of frequent gunfights.
The extreme weakness of the government’s small army in training was underscored last month. To wrest control of a strategic airfield at Sebha in Libya’s Saharan southwest from various local armed factions, Zeidan had to persuade a battle-hardened northern militia controlling the port city of Misrata to go down and restore the situation for him.
The GNC announced last week that elections for a 60-member constitutional assembly will be held on Feb. 20. That body would have 120 days to draft a constitution for submission to a national referendum. If approved, elections for Libya’s first post-transitional parliament will be held later this year. With a backdrop of division, disarray and violence, it hardly seems likely that this process will unfold without a host of problems.
Meanwhile, a Libya in turmoil continues to export violence. French military intervention thwarted a jihadist attempt to overrun Mali last year. With France drawing down its troop presence, attacks against government targets continue there with most munitions coming across the border from southwestern Libya (largely beyond Tripoli’s control). In addition to militants and associated smugglers, Qadhafi supporters also reportedly play a role in cross-border activity. To the north in Tunisia, the one “Arab Spring” bright spot, a shoot-out took place on the 3rd in which 8 died when Tunisian National Guard cadres stormed a hideout of Tunisia’s own Ansar al-Sharia group filled with explosives, small arms, and RPGs (materiel probably smuggled in from Libya).
Egypt, however, may face the most serious Libyan overspill. The jihadist Ansar Beit al-Maqdis group, based in Sinai but generating a number of attacks in Egypt proper, appears to be receiving much of its arms and explosives from Libya. Some believe the group may have secured some surface-to-air missiles via the Libyan black market, posing a potential threat to both Egyptian and Israeli commercial airliners.
Cracking down on this flow is difficult. The latest attempt involved the arrest by Egyptian authorities of a Libyan militia leader involved in arms trafficking. In response, gunmen promptly kidnapped five Egyptian diplomats in Tripoli. Cairo was forced to release the militia kingpin in order to secure the release of its diplomats.
Aside from nuclear negotiations with Iran, UN, US and broader regional diplomacy has focused on Syria or the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Yet, progress on Syria has been minimal and so long as the Netanyahu government remains in power and Palestinian divisions remain, there is only an extremely remote possibility that Secretary Kerry can break the impasse over core issues.
With such great difficulties facing Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian efforts, extending to Tripoli the opportunity to utilize the good offices of the UN with the backing of members of the international community seems reasonable. Ali Zeidan might shun such external involvement out of fear it would accord his rivals too much legitimacy. He might instead prefer to keep waiting out Jathran, hoping the latter will succumb to dissention within his own camp.
Nonetheless, even if Jathran caves, with Libya fast approaching a demanding political agenda related to elections and a permanent constitution (stacked alongside Zeidan’s own myriad problems), diplomacy could be useful in other respects. So, with Libyan-associated regional collateral damage considerable, little seems to be lost in offering an alternative, including the possibility of an overseas venue like Geneva for domestic dialogue.