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Michael Jansen: Dangerously divided
March 21, 2014
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The post-Arab Spring power struggle has been between secularists and fundamentalists in Libya, Egypt and Syria. But in Libya and Syria, the battle has also pitted powerful militias against the centre, plunging them into civil conflict.

Libya has, in particular, been dangerously weakening as a sovereign entity and is at risk of splitting into two states, Cyrenaica in the east and Tripolitania in the West.   

The government based in Tripoli, the capital of Tripolitania, can no longer contain minor challenges like the North Korean tanker Morning Glory that set sail after taking on oil at the rebel-held port of Sudra in Cyrenaica, the location of two-thirds of the country’s oil resources. The tanker, commandeered by rebels, escaped interception by an armed tug boat, the only vessel the Libyan navy could muster, and was nabbed by US commandos on a US warship off the Cypriot coast on Monday.

The debacle resulted in a vote of no confidence in Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, his resignation and flight to Germany where he had lived in exile. Fundamentalists in parliament, who regarded him as a secularist, were eager to topple him and chose this moment to do so. He is the second post-revolution leader to be removed by a vote of no-confidence.

The cradle of the 2011 Libyan civil war that toppled Muammar Qaddafi, Cyrenaica was ruled by the Benghazi-based National Transitional Council during the conflict. Benghazi gained a considerable degree of independence at that time and resented the return of the seat of government to Tripoli once the war ended.

With a population of only six million and Africa’s largest oil reserves, the country had the possibility of establishing an effective and efficient democratic system once Qaddafi had gone. This did not happen. During his long reign Qaddafi held the reins of power in his hands and did not allow state institutions to emerge or the rule of law to take root. Once he was ousted, Libya had to, essentially, start from scratch as far as governance was concerned.

Unfortunately, Libyans who assumed rule after the fall of Qaddafi had no experience in governance or apportioning authority among state institutions. Due to fear of a strong executive, power was concentrated in the legislature, the General National Congress (GNC), rather than the prime minister and cabinet. To complicate matters, the GNC has been disproportionately influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction party and the Salafis while the cabinet has been largely secular and Zeidan is regarded as being pro-Western.             

The secular camp has the support of the Qaqaa and Sawaid brigades from Zintan, southwest of Tripoli.

Zeidan’s replacement, Abdullah Al Thinni, a former defence minister, is seen as being close to the Brotherhood. He and GNC speaker Nuri Abu Sahmain are backed by the best-armed Misrata militia which has assumed some of the roles of the weak army.

The fundamentalists can also count on the Revolutionaries Operations Room, which kidnapped Zeidan briefly last October in retaliation for the US seizure of Abu Anas Al Libi, under indictment in the US for his part in the 1998 US embassy bombings in Africa.  The militia, which had been in charge of security for Tripoli, was dismissed by parliament after the abduction.

Meanwhile, the country’s crumbling infrastructure is in desperate need of renewal. Schools, hospitals, roads, the judiciary and police require a large infusion of funds as well as expertise Libya does not have. 

In the east, the militias – tribal and fundamentalist – that fought Qaddafi are now battling each other and besieging oil fields and ports with the aim of securing revenue for their regions.  This has caused a dramatic reduction in output and exports.

The power struggles conducted by tribes in the west and south are regional rather than tribal. While Cyrenaica does not face such divisive regional confrontations, it has to deal with ideological competition between fundamentalists and moderate leftists. Cyrenaica is also the most neglected region of the country and its people want autonomy, freedom and a fair share of oil revenues which account for 95 per cent of government funding.

Libya’s production has fallen from 1.4 million to 200,000 barrels per day since last summer when militia blockades were imposed on the oil fields and ports. More than half of this amount is refined in the west and sent to Tripoli.

The Morning Glory affair sprang from Cyrenaican discontent. Ibrahim Jathran, a militia leader now in charge of the oil ports, shut down production, demanding that gauges be installed on pumps at terminals so there can be an accounting of oil exports. He also demanded a referendum on federalism to decide Cyrenaica’s status. When his demands were ignored, he formed a provincial government and offered the region’s oil for sale. The Morning Glory was carrying 234,000 barrels of crude oil, valued at $30 million (Dhs110 million). Little wonder that the US – which is allied to the government – hijacked the ship off the coast of Cyprus with the aim of returning it to cash-strapped Tripoli.

Western militias loyal to the GNC have advanced toward Cyrenaica which has been given two weeks to end the oil port blockade. Since these militias are more powerful than those in the east, Libya could fall victim to a west-east civil war.

Benghazi has been undermined politically and militarily by insecurity. On Monday, a bombing at a military barracks slew nine people leaving a graduation ceremony for officers. Bombings and assassinations on an almost daily basis have been carried out by separatists and jihadi factions determined to impose their rule and Muslim canon law, Sharia.       

When Libya holds elections in July this year it is expected that the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies could lose all their 34 seats in the 200-member parliament because of popular disenchantment with the movement. But the moderately secular National Forces Alliance could also suffer a loss of seats due to popular disaffection and disillusionment with the post-Qaddafi democratic experiment.
The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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