Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1165, (19 - 25 September 2013)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1165, (19 - 25 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Chaos in Libya

Recent events have made Libya look even more politically unstable, writes Gamal Nkrumah

Al-Ahram Weekly

It seems that the post-Muammar Gaddafi Libyan authorities might as well start cherry picking, with tribal infighting and the proliferation of militant Islamist militias having become an apparently permanent fixture of the country.

This week, members of two rival tribes in the remote, albeit strategic, town of Derj, 550km southwest of the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and close to the oil and natural gas installations on the Algerian border, left 11 people dead in a local conflict. This is the same area where Islamist terrorists kidnapped foreign and local oil workers and personnel in neighbouring In Amenas in Algeria some months ago.

According to the Libyan authorities, the tribal fighting erupted late on Thursday between border guards from the western tribe of Zintan and Garamna tribesmen. The clashes resulted in residents of Derj fleeing across the porous border into neighbouring Algeria, as Zintan border guards set fire to the houses of the rival Garamna tribe.

Under former Libyan leader Gaddafi, deep-rooted tribal animosities were kept in check. Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan hinted at military action this week in response to the current violence, which many Libyans have warned could spark wider unrest in the North African country riven by tribal and regional divisions.

The tribal fighting is exacerbated by crippling oil output stoppages and a substantial reduction in oil and gas production, due to the general state of insecurity in the country.

“I am not threatening, but I won’t let anyone hold Libya and its resources hostage to the irresponsible acts of these groups,” Zeidan was quoted as saying. “These people must understand what they are doing, so that when action takes place, everyone will understand why. However, I hope we won’t be forced to do something that we don’t want to do,” he said.

Observers believe that Zeidan’s comments are mainly empty threats. The Libyan army has little clout, and the militias effectively control the country. The disruptions in oil production and the stoppages in the west of Libya have been instigated mainly by the powerful Zintan tribal militias.

Moreover, these militias and tribal elders have emerged as major political groupings in post-Gaddafi Libya, becoming influential within Libyan government army units and ready to flex their muscles for a larger political role.

The Zintan tribal militias are now bargaining for higher allowances and a bigger stake in guarding the oil installations. Last month, the Zintan militias closed down two major oil fields in the south, Al-Feel and Esshara, disrupting at least 500,000 barrels per day (bpd) of production, or nearly a third of Libya’s Gaddafi-period production levels of around 1.5 million bpd.

In the coastal eastern part of Libya, where protesters from the oil sector are disrupting oil terminals, more trouble is brewing. The proliferation of weapons in the country coupled with demands for more pay for oil workers have now extended to broader political demands connected to a bigger share of Libya’s oil wealth and possible self-government for the major oil-producing eastern region of Cyrenaica.

In a burst of regionalism, hardliners among the federalists in Cyrenaica demanded this week the creation of an independent national oil firm that would be in charge of oil and natural gas exports.

The Libyan authorities have been at a loss as to what to do, and oil production now averages between 200,000 to 300,000 bpd, Zeidan told reporters in Tripoli.

The Libyan authorities appear to be toothless in the face of the disturbances, though Zeidan, in a bid to calm the situation, revealed that he was awaiting the recommendations of a fact-finding mission conducted by a 13-member crisis committee set up by the Libyan legislature to find a way out of the crisis.

The committee is headed by Abdel-Wahab Al-Qayed, and it has had difficulty communicating with the militias. Al-Qayed told Libyan parliamentarians last Tuesday that the committee had not arrived at a deal with the protesters, but added that it had won the approval of the General National Council, the Libyan parliament, for another week’s extension to conclude the task.

Meanwhile, Libya’s Finance Minister Al-Kilani Abdel-Karim Al-Jazi told reporters that his ministry had calculated the oil stoppages were depriving the country of at least $130 million a day in lost revenues.

Neighbouring countries and Libya’s Western allies have only the haziest idea of the tensions in the beleaguered nation. Al-Jazi warned that a prolonged crisis could force Libya to draw on its substantial foreign reserves over the next few months, but he stated that he did not foresee any serious problems with meeting the country’s financial obligations, including the salaries of government employees, at least until the end of the year.

Others dispute Al-Jazi’s optimism, however. Complicating the picture is the threat of militant Islamist Mohamed Sawan, who heads the Islamist Justice and Construction Party (JCP), the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, and the second biggest in Libya’s legislature.

Sawan has recently disclosed that the JCP is considering withdrawing its five ministers from Zeidan’s cabinet, including the oil minister.

Zeidan, a liberal who was elected last October, has seen the pressure piling up on him by Islamists and independents displeased at his handling of an unprecedented wave of strikes by oil workers and armed guards that has paralysed the country’s oil production and led to billions of dollars in lost revenues.

Sawan said there was growing support within the 200-member assembly for a vote of no confidence in Zeidan’s government.

“We have waited months for Zeidan’s government to act,” Sawan was quoted as telling Reuters. “Had we believed there was a chance for success of even 10 per cent, we would have been patient. The problem is that for Zeidan to stay in power will only worsen the crisis,” he said.

Libya’s current political and security problems have been accentuated by electricity and water shortages that have increased daily hardships for ordinary Libyans, many of whom now regret the toppling and brutal assassination of Gaddafi.

The political messages embedded in this shift of opinion in Libya have been made all the more clear because Zeidan has been a favourite of the liberal rivals of the JCP and the other Islamist factions.

The JCP reluctantly agreed to join his cabinet in a concession to popular demands for a broad-based consensus government. Now, however, it seems that Libya may be destined to be catapulted into even more destructive chaos.

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