Three years ago, the term “rebel,” when used by the Western media in reference to Libya, conjured up images of unlikely young fighters who took up arms for the first time against an unjust regime, guided by a hatred of tyranny, a desire for personal freedoms, and the memory of anticolonial hero Omar Mukhtar, whose image adorned rebel banners. Now, in 2014, other groups have come forward to challenge the current interim government and debate the legitimacy of Libya’s current political transition. These new groups, also perversely termed “rebels” for their rebellion against the new Libyan authorities, claim to be fighting corruption and injustice—but the lines demarcating which group has the moral high ground have become murkier, with many of today’s rebel groups seeming to be out for personal gain at the expense of the Libyan people and the rule of law.
These challenges to the Libyan central authorities have threatened to pull the country apart, rather than correct the shortcomings and mistakes of the 2011 Libyan uprisings and their aftermath. Should these various groups of so-called rebels continue to grab control of state institutions and resources for their own benefit, Libya will likely witness a descent into warlordism.
The largest single threat to Libya’s future as a cohesive, prosperous and peaceful nation is the blockade of the country’s three largest oil terminals, Ras Lanuf, Sidra and Zueitina, in Libya’s eastern Cyrenaica region for over eight months. Led by thirty-three-year-old Ibrahim Jadhran, a rag-tag assemblage of forces largely drawn from the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) originally meant to guard the ports are now holding them hostage. Jadhran was himself an erstwhile regional commander of the PFG, and is now head of the Political Bureau of Cyrenaica, a group trying to impose a federal system of government with an autonomous Cyrenaica region by force instead of allowing the relationship between central and local governments to be debated by the newly elected constitutional committee. His uncompromising demands include a new system of sharing oil revenue among Libya’s three regions, investigations into past oil corruption, and an independent committee to oversee oil exports.
The main negotiating tactic of this new kind of rebel is holding hostage 600,000 barrels a day worth of oil that could otherwise be produced and sold out of the terminals. Aside from dealing a grave blow to Libya’s state coffers, this move could also irreparably harm future production potential: If pressure in the fields feeding the terminals is lost during a prolonged period of non-production, they could be damaged permanently and thus benefit no one. Paolo Scaroni, the CEO of Italy’s Eni, the largest foreign oil company operating in Libya, warned on March 24 that the tactic of shutting down oil production in protest is “putting at risk future generations.”
“It risks damaging the geology of the field,” he said, on a day when protestors had yet again shut down production in the El-Fil field in western Libya. Shutdowns of petroleum facilities are also common in western Libya, in the hopes of forcing the central government’s hand, though in that case not for the cause of federalism.
So, when the Morning Glory, the North Korea-flagged tanker that shook Libya, docked at Sidra on March 8 and loaded a cargo of crude oil before the government started to react, it seemed at first that the Political Bureau of Cyrenaica had won the battle for self-declared regional autonomy and precipitated a rush to seize state assets by force. Ultimately, however, the assistance of the international community returned the tanker and its oil to Libya’s central authorities, and so Jadhran will not be able to sell the oil and gain the upper hand by spreading patronage to his followers. Perhaps his sole success from the incident was that he did succeed in making the Libyan government look incompetent and in providing the final impetus for kicking Prime Minister Ali Zeidan out of office. In this way the tanker episode still counts as a victory for him, and there is every reason to imagine he will try again.
Nonetheless, his self-declared autonomous government remains a fiction. UN Security Council resolution 2146, approved unanimously on March 14, was a strong statement that Libya’s allies will not sit idly by while Libyan assets are sold off by pirates. It called upon UN member states to refuse any financial transactions with those who have illegally seized Libyan oil and to refuse to allow such illegal cargo passage or docking. This resolution set the stage for a team of US Navy SEALs to board the tanker off the coast of Cyprus on March 17 and direct it back toward Libya. On March 22, the ship was returned to Libyan custody. It is clear that the aid of the international community against theft and piracy is positive for Libya, but alone it cannot fix the internal divisions.
So far, past efforts to negotiate a peaceful solution with Cyrenaican tribal elders have failed. Still, negotiation could be the key to resolving the crisis. A promising first step is that talks are now underway to exchange the prisoners held following the fighting that took place between federalist and pro-General National Congress (GNC) forces in late March. At least the lines of communication are open. Bolstering the government’s position is thought to be the rebels’ inability to sell the oil, preventing Jadhran from paying his forces and also leading to a loss of followers who lost faith after they witnessed the failure of the movement to seize autonomy for themselves or score any significant political gains.
After all, not all federalists—and certainly not all Cyrenaicans—support Jadhran or his tactics. This possible attrition could also strengthen the government’s negotiating position. Of course, it is unclear just how far the rebels are willing to negotiate, given that they have never compromised on their three major demands in past talks and seem to enjoy using negotiations only to extract more and more from the government without giving anything in return.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, on March 25 the Political Bureau of Cyrenaica announced that it will not enter into negotiations to end the blockade unless the GNC withdraws its ultimatum on the use of force. Essentially, this tactic means that the rebels will only negotiate in earnest when the government has already surrendered.
Empty threats to use force against the blockaders have been made multiple times in the past. If they continue without any follow-through, the credibility of the central authorities will diminish to zero. Most recently, GNC Decision 42 of 2014, issued on March 10, called for the use of force within seven days, depending on a mix of army and militia units. Plans were put in place to move the forces to Sirte, Ajdabiya and Jufra. However, on March 12, the GNC’s president, Nouri Abusahmain, announced that use of force would be postponed by two weeks, until March 26, to allow additional time for a peaceful negotiation to end the blockade.
On March 11, members of the Central Libya Shield Force attacked and removed pro-Jadhran forces at a military base in Sirte under orders from the Chief of Staff in preparation for an assault on the occupied oil terminals. The Libya Shield Force is not an official army unit, but instead a collection of militias, in this case Misratan militias, nominally under direction of the Defense Ministry. This was a blow against Jadhran, but reveals the ugly and ill-disguised truth that the Libyan Army is not strong enough to act on its own and must still depend on the shifting loyalties of militias that ultimately are working at cross purposes with the official armed forces, trying to consolidate their own power.
On March 22, rebels attacked an army base at Ajdabiya, where the army was preparing an attack to remove rebel forces from the oil ports, but Jadhran’s forces failed to expel government forces. Without dialogue channels, a move by force against the blockaders could trigger a larger fight between Libyan social currents, as tribal groups in the east might rally to Jadhran in opposition to the Islamist-dominated Tripolitanians they feel are currently leading the forces against them.
The major dependence on the Central Libya Shield Force to enter into an armed conflict to oust the blockaders from their positions could have the unsettling effect of unleashing a conflict not between government forces and the particular strain of federalist aligned with Jadhran, but a broader, more personal conflict between Islamists and federalists. No one can dispute that the Misratan militias of the Central Libya Shield have a decidedly Islamist outlook. Libya’s Grand Mufti, Sheikh Sadeq Al-Ghariani, proclaimed back on March 8, 2012, that federalism was against the Shari’a. Jadhran, for his part, has taken a vocal anti-Islamist stance, vowing last year to end the Muslim Brotherhood in Cyrenaica during an interview with Al-Arabiya.
This is not to say that eastern federalists and former eastern jihadists find themselves as natural enemies: both want the central government weakened, so that they can actualize their demands. Sadeq Al-Ghaithi, a former Islamist fighter, was among the leadership of the Political Bureau of Cyrenaica until he left last year after a falling-out over Jadhran’s leadership. On March 23, in an appearance on Libya Al-Ahrar TV, he brought up one of the harshest critiques of the modern federalist movement, and specifically the Political Bureau of Cyrenaica: that rather than truly advocating for the interests of an entire province, it in reality would provide a new means to channel largesse to narrow tribal and personal interests. He said that Jadhran used bribes of cars and money to win support, and having him in charge would mean “the return of dictatorship and tyranny for Cyrenaica and Libya.” If the point was not clear enough, Ghaithi stated that Jadhran would “establish tribal rule.” Though these accusations are unproven—and perhaps can be discounted by Ghaithi’s vindictive and probably false statement that Jadhran is receiving funding from overseas supporters of late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi—it is worth noting that some of Ghaithi’s criticisms hit the mark and are an indication that Jadhran’s support base can crack.
Any present plan to use force would be also be complicated by Maj. Gen. Khalifa Hiftar, who on February 14 famously called for a military council headed by himself to take over the country. The head of the air force, Brig. Gen. Ahmed Habib Al-Mismari, the commander of Benghazi’s Benina Airbase, and three air force colonels have just been fired for their role in welcoming Hiftar to speak at the airbase on March 17. Some federalists welcomed Hiftar’s plan to dissolve the GNC, one of their shared goals, and were heartened by his eastern origins despite their numerous disagreements. While Hiftar does not have wide backing throughout the country or even in the east, the fallout from his actions are disruptive to building a cohesive professional military that can be trusted to respond appropriately when called into action.
Stalemate is the status quo
The balance of power has now roughly returned to where it was before the Morning Glory docked at Sidra. Jadhran’s forces still control the three export terminals they have occupied since July. An uneasy stalemate is in effect for now, as the self-imposed March 26 deadline past which the government will use force to expel the rebels was reached without any meaningful developments so far.
Undoubtedly, infighting between political factions and between the legislative and executive branches has hindered the response to the blockade both over the past eight months, and especially in the immediate response to the renegade tanker. The ‘too little, too late’ response of the army, navy and air force to the tanker was arguably partly caused by the chief of staff’s refusal to follow the commands of then-Prime Minister Ali Zeidan or his defense minister, rather than those of the commander-in-chief and GNC President Nouri Abusahmain. It is also likely that Zeidan’s Islamist opponents knew that although disobeying him would hurt the interests of the Libyan people, it would give them the grounds to defeat their enemy and boot him out of office.
It will take more than a new prime minister to bring political cohesion, bold action and military might. In fact, the acting prime minister is former defense minister Abdallah Al-Thinni, who was involved in the debacle that allowed the tanker to dock and load oil. He is slated to be in power for at least an additional two weeks beyond his original tenure, assuming the GNC can agree on a further interim prime minister to serve until the June elections.
If the government cannot resolve its issues and if the conflict between various rebel groups drags out, one vision of a possible future comes from Nigeria, where local communities have managed not only to disrupt oil production to draw attention to demands for greater local development, but have also managed to steal and sell oil for personal profit, with over 150,000 barrels per day estimated stolen in 2013 and related pipeline shutdowns causing additional loss.
This rampant theft is enabled by politicians and military officers. While a majority of Libya’s communities are against any form of federalism where the revenues from the majority of Libya’s oil production would remain in the eastern part of the country, in the absence of oversight from a competent and stable government the temptation for communities in reach of pipelines to skim a little for themselves may prove too great.
There is a glimmer of hope: negotiations between the Tripoli government and the rebels, among them the Cyrenaicans, are now underway, which may lead to a reopening of the oil terminals. But with the central government clearly unwilling to contemplate the referendum on federalism the eastern rebels demand, greater autonomy will will likely remain the sticking point.
This article was originally published in The Majalla.