- By Mohamed EljarhMohamed Eljarh is a writer for Foreign Policy's Democracy Lab and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter at @Eljarh.
On Dec. 10, the head of the Barqa Political Office in eastern Libya announced that it reached a deal with local tribes to reopen Libya’s oil terminals as soon as Dec. 15. Armed groups linked to Barqa’s federalists have been blockading the oil terminals for months, depriving the country of billions in revenues and increasing global oil prices.
Ibrahim Jathran, the group’s leader, made the announcement during a tribal gathering in the town of Nawfaliya. Saleh Latwaish, head of the region’s Maghraba tribe, brokered the deal after days of campaigning and meetings between local tribes and federalist leaders. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan and his government welcomed this breakthrough, which will end the crisis that forced them to dip into their reserves to cover the shortfall in government spending. Local tribe leaders were the only party able to successfully end the crisis — reinforcing the fact that in post-revolution Libya, local is king.
The authorities in Tripoli must reconsider their relationship with key local and regional players in order to achieve stability and ensure a successful democratic transition. The controversial Political Isolation Law passed in May 2013 by the General National Congress (the country’s legislative body) bans people like Latwaish from political life because of their links to the Qaddafi regime. Nevertheless, the government continues to rely on these local actors to solve problems that the government cannot.
During a press conference today, Prime Minister Zeidan emphasized that he does not recognise the Barqa Political Office, and that his contacts are only working with local tribal leaders. This indicates that the government and Jathran are still at odds regarding the reopening of the oil terminals — a dispute that still has the potential to derail negotiations. To make matters worse, the oil workers’ union has vowed to keep the terminals closed regardless of any agreement brokered by the federalists, due to disputes over pay and work conditions. (The photo above shows a worker at the Zawiya oil terminal, which closed for several weeks this fall due to similar protests over work conditions and benefits.)
Many doubt that oil terminals will open on Dec. 15 because Jathran’s announcement included three demanding conditions. He asked that the central government create an independent investigation panel to look into allegations of widespread corruption in the oil industry; an oversight commission led by representatives from Barqa, Tarabulus, and Fizzan, to oversee all of the National Oil Corporation’s marketing and sales deals; and a mechanism to ensure better oil wealth distribution to benefit local economies in oil-rich regions. The government does not seem keen to respond to any of these conditions. The head of the Petroleum Facilities Guards (whose units are in charge of securing oil installations) stated in a press conference on Dec. 11 that Jathran’s conditions are only "terms of formality," and are not binding.
Meanwhile, Jathran and his men have come under fire as local communities and tribes demand that they reopen the terminals to ward off the looming financial crisis Libya will face if the blockade continues. Jathran and his government tried to open the terminals to market and sell oil on their own, apart from the central government, but this plan quickly proved unsustainable and legally suspect. Upsetting local populations would be disastrous for Jathran’s cause and could worsen the serious divisions within the federalist movement. It is likely, then, that Libya will resume normal levels of oil production and exports for the next few months. Jathran and his men could easily disrupt oil production again.
But in the long term, the central government needs a new strategy for dealing with conflict in its peripheries. Over the last two years, groups have repeatedly held oil installations hostage in pursuit of their financial or political interests. The government must broker a comprehensive political deal to guarantee that local and regional actors have a substantial role in Libya’s transition process. Otherwise, the country will continue to face threats to its oil infrastructure.
This recent breakthrough offers the government a valuable opportunity to engage with key local players and involve them in running the region, rather than excluding them. This would build long-term stability and minimize the negative impacts on the oil industry. Recent events in Libya have highlighted the important role local communities can play in Libya’s democratic transition. It is crucial that the central authorities, the U.N. Support Mission, and Libya’s friends in the West capitalize on the untapped potential of these communities, because they hold the key to solving many of the problems facing post-revolution Libya.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.