While this crisis has recently been resolved in part with the resumption of oil production and export in western Libya, the more serious and politically destabilizing protests in the eastern region of Cyrenaica still continue. Cracks in the vision of a united Libya are emerging, with town, tribe and region taking precedence over the nation as local councils and tribal leaders prove more able to provide services than the national government.
Real problems, empty threats
In the government’s effort to deal with this latest crisis and the most acute challenge to its post-Gaddafi authority, it appears that, once again, appeasement is the order of the day. While there are no easy solutions, it is clear that giving in to the demands of armed protesters rather than genuinely negotiating a long-term solution is counter-productive for Libya in two ways. First, bending over backwards to get armed groups to disperse is short-sighted, as it does not solve underlying problems. Second, the success of any given armed protest group creates a vicious cycle of emulation, incentivizing others with weapons and a grievance against the central government to press their claims.
Perhaps the most grievous example was the declaration by the National Transitional Council that the General National Congress (GNC) would no longer be responsible for selecting the constitutional committee. The announcement came two days before the 2012 GNC election, in the face of violent election disruptions by armed pro-federalist elements in Cyrenaica. Since then, countless other groups have occupied or blockaded government buildings, including the floor of the GNC itself. This trend culminated in April–May 2013 in the political isolation law, which Misratan and Islamist militias imposed on the central government in a successful attempt to weaken and delegitimize it.
In some areas, strikes began as an attempt to improve pay, while in other areas they were connected to larger ideological or local concerns. The El-Sharara field in western Libya was shut down in June after the Zintani militia guarding the field—reported to be the same one that refuses to hand over Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi to the government—demanded better pay and benefits. According to the head of the Zintan local council, the southwestern El-Fil field was also shut down by a mix of militias from Zintan and elsewhere in the Jebel Nafusa, as well as some Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) members.
Meanwhile, at the eastern export terminals El-Sidr and Ras Lanuf, protests started in mid-August when PFG members demanded higher pay, but protests later became aligned with those demanding the Libyan version of federalism: a weak central government with each region having veto rights over important policies. Ironically, this is the very same PFG that is supposed to be guarding the sites on behalf of the Ministry of Defense against those that would seek to occupy them or steal the oil.
Ibrahim Al-Jathran, a former PFG commander for the Central Region, is the leader of the El-Sidr protest and has become leader of the political committee for the Cyrenaican Transitional Council that declared autonomy for Cyrenaica within a federal system of government. The protestors at Zuetina are also partially aligned with Ibrahim Al-Jathran and, according to Wil Crisp, a freelance writer for the Times of London who has recently visited the site, Jathran is attempting to negotiate with the relevant tribal elements to gain full control of the facility.
While Cyrenaica is home to the majority of Libya’s oil and fresh water resources, Libya’s infrastructure and pipelines crisscross all of its regions, and the boundaries between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania are far from clear. A struggle on behalf of the federalists to actualize their aims could actually deprive the rest of the country of the resources it needs to survive.
In mid-September, GNC crisis committee negotiations allowed for the Tripolitanian disputes to be resolved, leading to the restarting of production in the El-Fil and El-Sharara fields. However, in the east, Ibrahim Al-Jathran and his supporters refuse to back down. They may have realized that the more unreasonable their demands and the more vocally they express them, the more concessions they can extract from the central government.
While the GNC and the Zeidan-led government have moved to negotiate with the strikers, the subsequent actions of both the government and protesters are not encouraging. On September 3, the GNC formed a thirteen-member crisis committee to negotiate with the various groups blockading oil facilities throughout the country. The Zeidan government promised to use force to oust the protesters if they crossed the line into selling oil. That was a first for the succession of weak governments after the 2011 uprisings that have been unwilling to use force against anyone, even armed militias that have occupied government buildings, styling themselves as protesters. As a result of his human rights background and stated desire to never use force against his own people, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has not previously been able to mobilize his forces to confront the perpetrators of anti-government violence. It remains to be seen if he can do so now.
There is anecdotal evidence that federalist-aligned militias are attempting to market pirated oil at substantially below market prices to anyone willing to risk the purchase. The Libyan Navy reportedly fired on an oil tanker on its way to take an unauthorized crude shipment at El-Sidr, but following the issuance of arrest warrants for the strike leaders by Libya’s public prosecutor, no police action was used on the protestors to remove them. Such empty threats merely show further weakness.
No Quick Fix
Other attempts to address the problems have gone nowhere. On the surface, throwing money at striking workers asking for higher salaries sounds like the perfect win–win short-term solution, the Zeidan government’s September 4 announcement of 20 percent pay increases for all public sector workers, including oil facility guards, did not disperse those demanding higher salaries.
The worst mistake of the crisis has just been revealed, with the head of the GNC energy committee, Naji Mokhtar, admitting that he wrote checks last week worth LYD 2.5 million (approximately USD 2 million) to the leaders of the eastern oil strikes as enticement to reopen the closed oil export terminals. He claims the move is not a bribe and is not appeasement. Strangely, this money came out of his personal account, and the action was done without the knowledge or approval of either the GNC or the Prime Minister’s Office.
Mokhtar has admitted that he “didn’t want the payment made public to avoid spurring other groups to make similar demands,” a sure sign he is well aware that his tactic will only encourage copycat behavior by other armed groups. It also suggests complex layers of corruption within the Cabinet. Similarly, this irregular and illegal behavior from a high-ranking member of the GNC further calls into question the integrity of the floundering parliamentary institution at a time when there have already been calls to dissolve the GNC and hold elections for a more honest, transparent, hardworking and effective parliament.
As long as the government cannot or will not enforce its myriad edicts against armed groups occupying government sites, protesters will surely continue to hold out for more. The basic principles of poker and game theory demonstrate this: Once a bluff has been exposed, subsequent bluffs will be called and capitalized on.
Clearly, Libya has been in desperate need of professional military and police forces loyal to the state for many months. Instead, it currently has an ad hoc network of lukewarm pro-government revolutionary brigades bound by nominal agreements to act under the aegis of the defense or interior ministries, but with ultimate loyalty to their unit commanders and their place of origin. Professional security forces would be less likely to engage in behavior like the striking members of the PFG, and would also be capable of removing those who occupy government sites.
Sadly, training new security forces is a medium-term solution, rather than an option for the immediate future. The long-term goal of the government establishing a monopoly over the use of force is a long way off, and currently looks like a ridiculously ambitious goal to achieve. To illustrate just how slowly the situation is likely to change, the joint US–EU effort to train up to 8,000 Libyan troops in Bulgaria will take place over the next five to eight years, and even its initial impact is unlikely to be felt for many months. The only possible short-term solution for the government is to reframe the debate on the ground and win back the hearts and minds of the Libyan people by convincing them that their future will be better with a constitution and a strong, legitimate and competent central government that works with local authorities.
The one saving element of the GNC and Zeidan government’s behavior is that they have not yet given in to renewed eastern ultimatums for federalism by making further concessions towards a federal system of government prior to the convening of the constitutional committee. Nor have they prejudiced the question of Libya’s official language by enshrining the demands of the Berber representatives who withdrew from the GNC in protest.
With the process of creating a new constitution such a divisive task, it is doubtful that focusing on pushing through the much-delayed constitutional committee election and constitution drafting process will knit together the nation and imbue the government with increased legitimacy. We must wait until approximately 2015 for that to happen, for the first government elected under the new constitution. The elections for the sixty-member constitutional committee still have not been scheduled due to lack of data from the civil registration authority, though the High National Election Commission has announced that candidate registration is now open. As a growing number of analysts and civil society activists have said, a national dialogue is the key to security and political progress.
Reconciliation and real give-and-take negotiations could go a long way towards dispute resolution in tense communities. Solving such disputes at the local level before the writing of the constitution will hopefully prevent any one group from holding the future of the nation hostage at gunpoint by attempting to influence the final text through violence and blackmail. Simply throwing money or concessions at the problem—more specifically, at protest leaders—will be only a temporary fix that is no substitute for addressing underlying societal issues.
This article was first published by The Majalla.