Examining Libya: Regionalism, Oil, Conflict and Nation BuildingMarch 14, 2014 in Libya
As Libya strives toward national stability, the nation is met by conflicts stemming from regional and tribal divisions. Last month, only 14% of eligible Libyan voters went to the polls to elect the body responsible for drafting their new constitution. In the past week, rebel held oil ports conducted illegal trade with an oil tanker, and days ago, Libya’s prime minister was ousted in a vote of no confidence. Despite the strides taken toward progress, national stability has been slowed by the tribal loyalties and the resurgence of federalist desires.
Understanding Regions and Tribes in Libya
There are over 140 tribes present in Libya, broken up by twenty major tribal groups across three Libyan states, Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica to the east, and Libya’s oldest province, Fezzan, in the south. A tribe is essentially a social organisation with its own ethics, system of justice, and internal politics. Tribal borders between are not easily distinguished, sometimes leading to conflict based on historical claims to territories. However the regional borders of Libya’s states have existed as early as the 7th century BCE.
The three provinces of Libya existed as loosely connected autonomous states until King Idris passed a constitutional amendment in 1963 to abolishing the federal system in favour of a unified government. When Idris was overthrown by Gadhafi in 1969, the unification remained in place. Despite the shift in power, tribal groups were still treated as second class citizens, for example, in the southern town of Ubari in the Fezzan region, nearly 14,000 Tuareg families have been denied Libyan ID numbers, and thus have no access to state benefits. Many tribes complain of racial discrimination or poor access to government resources. As a result, tribal and regional identity often supersedes national identity. Tribal relations with their national leaders are considered matters of “foreign policy.”
Impact on Libya
In the post-Gadhafi era in Libya, tribal and regional groups have sought to regain and protect their autonomy and identity. In some cases, this desire has lead to tension between regions and the national government, and resulted in armed clashes and threats to break away from the state.
During the 2011 civil war, many tribal militias formed to support or oppose Gadhafi’s regime. In the post-Gadhafi era, the transitional government restructured some allied militias into an ersatz security apparatus. However, other militias formed during the war remained in place to secure their own tribal or regional aims.
Strife stemming from tribal and regional affiliations has become most visible since the summer of 2013. In the Fezzan region, regional and tribal militias slowed—and in some cases halted—production of oil due to disputes with the national government. In the east, a federalist group called the Cyrenaica Transitional Council (CTC) declared self-government in June 2013. The CTC desires to create an autonomous state and take control of a portion of national oil revenues.
In July, Ibrahim Jedhran became the leader of the self-styled Political Bureau of Cyrenaica. By July 2013, his group had successfully seized three oil terminals in al-Sidra, Ras Lanuf, and Zueitina. Together, these ports accounted the export of nearly 700,000 barrels of oil per day.
Federalism in the East
Libyan Prime Minster Ali Zeidan said in December 2013, “We are producing oil at perhaps a fifth of our capacity and are carrying out some limited exporting operations. The issue is that the guards [the Petroleum Facilities Guard] who were assigned to protect the oil facilities betrayed their homeland and seized control of the facilities.”
The Petroleum Facilities Guard were members of the armed militias formed to fight the Gaddafi regime, but were not disbanded. They are loyal to Jedhran and Cyrenaica, not Libya. Jedhran formed his own oil company, the Libyan Oil and Gas Corporation (LOGC). Despite battles with the Tripoli government, the Cyrenaica separatists were able to maintain control of the ports. By October 2013, Jedhan and the federalists announced a government for Cyrenaica, including a prime minister, deputy prime minister, and 24 other ministers. The Cyrenaica government is also planning to recruit and train a Cyrenaican Defence Force.
Prime Minister Zeidan declared intentions to stop vessels from trading with Jedhran’s company, issuing threats to bomb any ship that attempts to export oil without the approval of Libya’s National Oil Company (NOC). Ignoring this threat, on 6 January, 2014, the LOGC prepared to provide crude oil to Maltese flagged vessel. The Libyan navy fired on the ship, causing them to turn away.
The LOGC had not attempted trade again until Saturday (8 March), when a North Korean-flagged tanker docked in al-Sidra port and loaded 234,000 barrels of crude, worth about $36 million US. The ship, called the Morning Glory, became the first vessel to load oil from a rebel-held port. By Sunday, warships were deployed to block the Morning Glory, and Culture Minister Amin al-Habib warned that the tanker would be “turned into a pile of metal” if it tried to leave port. However, the ship successfully manoeuvred into international waters, as the small patrol boats sent to follow the ship were hindered by bad weather.
The Morning Glory’s escape served a humiliating blow to the national government in Tripoli. On Monday the Libyan parliament ordered the formation of a military force, comprised of soldiers and allied militia groups to “liberate the ports within weeks.” That same day, a no-confidence motion was approved by 124 of the 194 members of the General National Congress (GNC), and Prime Minister Zeidan was removed from office, replaced by Defence Minister Abdullah al-Thani, until a permanent replacement can be chosen within two weeks.
Can the Government Regain Control?
The inability of Libya’s national government to intervene is indicative of their lack of power. The government has used ultimatums in an attempt to control tribes and militias, but ultimatums are largely ignored or met with violence. It appears that the tribes and militias in Libya do not have faith in the central government, as indicated by the low turnout in February’s polls. The GNC continues to work on writing a new national constitution, and hopes to have higher turnout for the referendum. However, the lack of a formalised security apparatus, failure to address militias in the region, continued avoidance of dealing with disenfranchised groups, and an emerging desire for federalism has weakened the central government. It is likely that the three regions of Libya will undergo more duress before they can achieve consensus enough to build a sustainable national system.