World Affairs

Libya on edge

Print edition : April 18, 2014

Crew members of the tanker that hade made off with illegally bought oil from the rebel-controlled Es Sider port being brought to Tripoli port on March 23. U.S. forces seized the tanker, which is now docked at Tripoli. Photo: REUTERS

It was the government's failure to stop the illegal export of oil that led to the exit or Prime Minister Ali Zeidan. Photo: MAHMUD TURKIAAFP

A rebel under militia leader Ibrahim Jathran guards the entrance of Es Sider port in Ras Lanuf on March 11. Photo: ESAM OMRAN AL-FETORI/REUTERS

Ravaged by terrorism and hit hard by reduced oil exports, Libya finds itself in a chaotic situation.

Libya seems to be on the verge of imploding three years after the regime change imposed on it by the West. The interim government does not even have control of the capital, Tripoli, if recent events are any indication. The seat of parliament has been raided by militias, political figures have been targeted for assassination, the international airport has been targeted with missiles, and the Prime Minister, Ali Zeidan, was briefly kidnapped. In the second week of March, Zeidan was forced to flee the country after the government issued a warrant for his arrest. This was after he was dismissed from his post by the interim parliament, dominated by Islamist parties, on charges of incompetence and corruption.

Meanwhile, tribal militias and Al Qaeda-affiliated groups are ruling the roost in other parts of the country. Militias of various political and tribal hues have their own jails and torture cells. Saif al Qaddafi, the former Libyan leader’s heir apparent, is in the custody of the Zintan militia. They are a law unto themselves and have refused to hand over Saif al Qaddafi either to the central government or to international authorities for trial. And in late February, the government in neighbouring Niger handed over another surviving son of the former ruler, Saadi Qaddafi, to the Libyan government to stand trial. The government of Niger is no doubt aware of the chaos and lawlessness prevailing in the country. In February, an Indian doctor was killed in Derna, a stronghold of extremist groups. There are fears that Indian medical professionals, numbering over 1,600, may find it difficult to stay on. The Libyan health-care system will collapse if there is an exodus of Indian doctors.

On February 14, one of the leading Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “assets” in Libya, Major General Khalifa Hifter, announced that he would carry out a military takeover of the government. “The national command of the Libyan army is declaring a movement for a new road map” to save the country, Hifter declared. He grandiosely announced the suspension of parliament. He claimed that he was replicating the path being taken by Gen. Abdul Fattah El-Sisi in Egypt. Gen. Sisi had also announced “a new road map” for Egypt while staging his coup last July. The Libyan army, powerless as it is, did not respond to the call made by Hifter, a man with a seedy reputation. He was flown in by the Americans from his exile in the United States prior to the overthrow of the Libyan government in 2011.

On January 18, a group of heavily armed men stormed an air force base outside the city of Sabha in southern Libya. They expelled forces loyal to the interim government. There are reports that in areas dominated by “black” Libyans in the south of the country, the green flag of the previous government is once again fluttering. Early this year, the Deputy Industry Minister, Hassan al Drouie, was assassinated in the city of Sirte, a stronghold of Qaddafi and one of the last cities to fall to the rebels and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).

The situation today is so grim that the Libyan government had to issue an appeal in the third week of March to the international community for urgent help to “fight terrorism”. The appeal comes in the wake of a series of suicide bombings and terror attacks in Benghazi and clashes with militias controlling oil refineries and ports. A U.S. security official, Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, who led the elite U.S. security force in Libya before the targeting of the American consulate in Benghazi and the killing of the U.S. Ambassador, has said that there are now more Al Qaeda fighters in the country than before. The U.S. Congress was told that between 10,000 and 20,000 surface-to-air missiles were still unaccounted for.

According to a recent United Nations report, sophisticated arms from Libya have reached insurgent groups all over the continent, including the Boko Haram, which has been causing mayhem in northern Nigeria. Many of the weapons from Libya were sent to Syrian rebel forces under the patronage of the Americans and the Gulf monarchies. The U.N. report suggested that members of the Libyan armed forces were continuing to sell handguns in their inventories to civilians. Given the general breakdown in law and order in the country, there is a great demand for such weapons. The U.N. report said that the security situation had “considerably deteriorated” and that incidents of “carjacking, robbery, kidnappings, tribal disputes, political assassinations, armed attacks and clashes, explosions from improvised explosive devices and demonstrations” had increased markedly.

Reduced oil exports

The country is almost totally dependent on oil exports for survival. But its oil exports have been sharply reduced, from 1.5 million barrels a day in 2011 to 250,000 barrels today. Hariga, the country’s largest centrally controlled oil terminal in the eastern region, is now under the control of armed militias that are bent on secession. Even petrol for domestic consumption is now in short supply in Tripoli, which has a population of more than two million, one-third of the country’s population.

The government accused “terrorist groups” of waging war against Benghazi, Sirte and other cities. The Libyan army, trained by Western and Gulf Arab countries, is not up to the task of militarily confronting the well-armed militias, which are organised mainly on a tribal and regional basis. Washington has now decided to do hands-on training of Libyan army troops. According to reports, the U.S. has already begun preparations for a larger mission to train Libyan troops in Bulgaria. Around 500 soldiers from the U.S. 1st Infantry Division will train around 8,000 Libyan troops in basic combat skills as part of the larger NATO effort to improve security in the country.

It was the inability of the government to stop the illegal export of oil that precipitated the exit of the Libyan Prime Minister. The military was unable to stop a tanker carrying illegally purchased oil from the rebel-controlled Es Sider port in eastern Libya from leaving Libya’s waters. Initially, the tanker was described as North Korean-owned, but it was actually contracted by a firm with its headquarters in Dubai. Two Israelis and a Senegalese were arrested by the police in Cyprus on charges of attempting to buy the cargo. Libyan naval ships destroyed by NATO have not been replaced. The Libyan Air Force is rudderless after the dismissal of its chief. Most of the pilots refused to obey government orders to interdict the rogue oil tanker. The ship was finally interdicted by the U.S. Navy and returned to the custody of the central government.

The action against the ship has not gone down well with the powerful militia grouping led by Ibrahim Jathran, who was previously the army-appointed head of the national oil protection force. Last year he had set up the Cyrenaica Political Bureau in defiance of the central government, demanding that the bulk of the oil revenues from his region be ploughed back for the benefit of the residents there. Libya was divided into three independent parts—Tripolitana, Cyrenaica and Fezzan until it was colonised by Fascist Italy under Benito Mussolini. After the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi, separatist feelings have resurfaced with a vengeance. Much of the oil produced in Libya comes from the eastern province of Cyrenaica.

Jathran claims that at this juncture he is only fighting against the Muslim Brotherhood’s domination of politics in Tripoli. But his spokesman has said that if the Muslim Brotherhood’s policies lead to civil war, the east “would be forced to become an independent state”. But with the intervention of the U.S. Navy on behalf of the central government in the incident involving the tanker carrying oil being sold by the Cyrenaica Political Bureau, the rebel militias now have the Western powers to contend with. The U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Deborah Jones, described the sale of oil by the Jathran-led militia as “a theft from the Libyan people”.

However, Jathran now has an ally of sorts in the ousted Prime Minister, Ali Zeidan. Speaking after his dramatic escape from Tripoli, Zeidan, hand-picked by the West for a leadership role in post-Qaddafi Libya, blamed the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated interim government in Tripoli for his tribulations. He accused the Islamists of wanting to “impose their will” on the country and described his dismissal as illegal. The powerful Zintan militia in the west of the country has rallied in support of him. If they join with Jathran’s forces in the east, the central government might well face the prospect of a total blockade on the export of oil from the west as well as the east.

The central government now has aligned with a powerful group of militias from the south, called the “Libya Shield”, from the city of Misrata. They have been tasked with liberating the refineries and ports in the east that are under the control of Jathran and other militias supporting his bid for greater control over the oil and gas produced in the region. The federalist forces in Cyrenaica, with their stronghold in Benghazi, are preparing for a showdown. There are reports suggesting that the militias in Benghazi are preparing for a unilateral declaration of independence for Cyrenaica. The rebel forces hope to get the support of the Libyan Air Force. Three air force bases had earlier supported the abortive coup by Gen. Hifter.