Can Libya Stay Together?

April 8, 2014 Topic: Failed StatesPost-ConflictSecurity Region: Libya

Can Libya Stay Together?

East, west and south are at risk of falling apart.


Since the overthrow of Gaddhafi, the capital has long been consumed by fierce struggles between Islamists and the coalition aligned with former prime minister Ali Zeidan, largely perceived as Western proxies—each with their own parliamentary blocs and militias. Over the course of the last several months, there have been many attempts at deposing the country’s first democratically elected prime minister, with militias going so far as to abduct him at gunpoint and demand his resignation. These failed attempts have begun to give way to calls for altogether disbanding the parliament. However, last month the opposition finally managed to sack the embattled PM due to his mismanagement of eastern separatist movements.

Following the vote of no confidence in his government, Zeidan promptly fled the country—he had been banned from leaving due to an ongoing investigation of “financial irregularities” involving payments to one of the armed groups which had been besieging Libya’s oilfields.


It is not clear who will replace Zeidan. The deputy PM Sadiq Abdulkarim, who recently survived an assassination attempt himself, has been apparently passed over. Instead, the parliament has named Libya’s defense minister to the post on a temporary basis—possibly in an attempt to rally the army behind them in the wake of last month’s threatened military coup.

The parliament was forced to hold this and other referenda in a luxury hotel, after anti-Islamist protesters stormed the Parliament building, killing one, injuring several, and causing extensive damage to the premises.

This attack followed the preliminary announcement of the election results for Libya’s new Constituent Assembly—a poll in which more than a fifth of the seats were unable to be filled as a result of polling-place violence or election boycotts, and less than 14 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast ballots at all. These results suggest a growing sense of disenchantment with the government among Libyans, perhaps best embodied by the separatist movements gaining strength in the country’s east and south:

A Misunderstood Revolt?

Notwithstanding reductionist narratives about the so-called “Arab Spring,” the uprising in Libya began as a struggle for succession of the east—a struggle which had been ongoing, with ebbs and flows, since Gaddhafi ended the federalist system of King Idriss I and integrated Cyrenaica and Fezzan more robustly into the state, largely against their will.

The armed struggle expanded into a national campaign as the denizens of Cyrenaica grew increasingly convinced that they would never be able to enjoy security or autonomy while the Colonel remained in power—driving him out of the east was not enough. And so, in order to ensure their independence, they pressed on towards Tripoli, refusing attempts at mediation by the African Union.

The rebels were able to repel Gaddhafi’s forces and advance on the capital because of the NATO intervention—which began in March 2011 as a no-fly zone to protect the rebels but was quickly forced to expand far beyond its U.N. mandate because, despite small antigovernment protests in Tripoli and other parts of the country, beyond Cyrenaica the people did not rise up en masse to overthrow the regime. Similarly, contrary to the Obama administration’s Reaganesque calculations, the relatively small national military did not defect or desert the Colonel until his final days. And so, the revolution had to be carried largely by the east and its foreign patrons, from the beginning to the bitter end.

Therefore, it should not have been surprising when, a few short months after the Colonel’s extrajudicial execution in October 2011, the east declared its autonomy from the fledgling transitional government in Tripoli. At the time of the initial declaration, Cyrenaica did not have the means to actually realize its ambitions. This would soon change.

Rise of the Separatists

A decisive factor in the campaign against Gaddhafi was a large influx of mujahideen, many affiliated with Al Qaeda—many of whom hailed themselves from Eastern Libya, which had become a major source of transnational jihadists over the lifespan of the regime: Cyrenaica provided by far the most foreign fighters per capita to the insurgency in Iraq, just as the easterners had made a decisive contribution in the 1980s against the Russians in Afghanistan, with many ascending to pivotal roles in Al Qaeda’s central leadership over the successive decades.

Most of these fighters pledged their allegiance to the NTC in the aftermath of the revolution, exclusively under the condition their conservative interpretations of Islamic law would be written into Libya’s constitution and serve as the foundation of Libyan law. However, as the Western-backed interim government came into increasing conflict with some of these Islamist factions, many militias in turn denied the legitimacy of the central authorities and joined Eastern separatist movements under the loose command of former rebel-leader Ibrahim Jathran. In October of 2013, these forces seized the oilfields that PM Zeidan had assigned them to protect on behalf of the NTC, now controlling three of Libya’s largest fields and working on a fourth.

Of course, eastern succession is just as untenable for Libya’s interim government as it was for the Gaddhafi regime: while more than two-thirds of the Libyan population lives in the Tripolitania and Fezzan regions (mostly the former), Cyrenaica holds about 80 percent of the country’s high-grade oil reserves—the largest proven reserves in Africa (and the fifth largest in the world). Moreover, Libya’s relatively low oil-production costs and proximity to Europe make it a critical geopolitical resource. Oil sales, in turn, accounted for more than 70 percent of Libya’s pre-war GDP, 98 percent of Libyan exports, and 95 percent of state revenues. Accordingly, an independent Cyrenaica in control of most of Libya’s oil would be unbelievably rich—but would leave the overwhelming majority of Libyans (and their government) in abject poverty.

The problem for the separatists is that despite their physically possessing these resources, the government in Tripoli has exclusive legal rights to Libya’s oil…for now. In November, Cyrenaica announced the formation of their own oil company and central bank, challenging the near-monopoly of Libya’s National Oil Corporation. Soon thereafter, they hired a Canadian lobbying firm to help convince the international community to recognize Cyrenaica and grant it sovereignty over those resources that fall within its territory. They are already in discussions with potential customers to export this oil.

In response, the central government set up a naval blockade to prevent easterners from selling oil in the service of their bid for independence. But earlier this month, a tanker managed to break through. Dubbed Morning Glory, the ship managed to smuggle over 234,000 barrels of crude out into international waters, apparently bound for North Korea. While the ship was soon captured and returned to the Libyan government by U.S. Navy SEALS, simply breaking through the blockade was a critical psychological victory for the rebels.

Moreover, inspired by
Cyrenaica’s example, in September 2013 separatists in Libya’s southern Fezzan region also declared autonomy. While they do not have easy access to seaports to smuggle their oil, they have set up blockades to prevent the central government from being able to benefit from it either. The battle for control over these resources is not just between the local tribes and the central government, but is increasingly a source of intertribal conflict in the south between the
Arabs, Tebus, and Tuaregs—whose tribal affiliations transcend Libya’s borders well into neighboring Niger, Chad and Algeria and form a more significant identity for many than their nationality as Libyans or citizens of Fezzan—especially given the longstanding marginalization and mistreatment of black Libyans by the Arab population, which grew far worse during and after the revolution due to the tribes’ general lack of support of, and resistance to, the uprising.="#axzz2wzvkjs00">

A Country on the Brink

As a result of these crises, Libya’s oil production has dropped to around 12.5 percent of its pre-war level of 1.4 million barrels per day (bpd)—in fact, the picture could be even worse than this, given that export levels belie the government’s production estimates. This radically decreased output severely inhibits the state’s ability to actually establish control, build infrastructure, or provide critical services—which further erodes its legitimacy in the eyes of the people, thereby empowering the separatists in these critical regions.

In order to stem this tide, the new PM announced that operations to reclaim all of Libya’s oilfields would begin within days his taking office. Shortly thereafter, the army began to build up forces for an offensive in the east. In response, the rebels launched a preemptive strike to drive back the government units before they could be reinforced—apparently successfully.

In an attempt to prevent further escalation, the head of the Ennahda Party, Rashid al-Ghannouchi, has tried to intervene and bring the Libyan parties together for national dialogue, and, God willing, reconciliation. Ghannouchi is drawing from Tunisia’s recent success in apparently stepping back from the brink. This work appears to be bearing fruit: Jathran has just announced a breakthrough in negotiations with Tripoli which should allow oil to begin flowing again in days—the first good news to come out of the region in some time.