Is Libya’s Government Prepared to Declare War on Oil Tankers?

Is Libya’s Government Prepared to Declare War on Oil Tankers?

Libya’s all-important oil industry continues its downward spiral. On Monday, the Libyan navy intercepted a Maltese tanker which they accused of attempting to enter territorial waters and illegally load oil from terminals under the control of regional militias who are advocating broad autonomy for the country’s east. Needless to say, this latest event marks a dangerous escalation in the tug-of-war between the central government and the "federalists."

The federalists have denied any connection to the tanker. However, in clear defiance of the government in Tripoli, Abdraba al-Barrasi, the head of the self-appointed government of the eastern region of Barqa, announced some 48 hours after the tanker incident that his government is reopening the oil terminals and will be marketing and selling the oil through its own oil and gas corporation. The Barqa Political Office also issued a letter to major oil companies and buyers assuring them that security will be provided for any vessels docking at the ports under their control. In its letter, the Barqa government urged oil buyers to ignore any warnings issued by the central government in Tripoli. It’s not entirely clear, though, how many shipping companies will be prepared to trust these assurances.

In the space of six months, the federalists have managed to transform themselves from a protest group into a significant opponent to the central authorities in Tripoli. This transformation happened under the leadership of Ibrahim Jathran, a former revolutionary commander, who was appointed head of the Petroleum Facilities Guard after the toppling of the Qaddafi regime before he broke from the central government and joined the federalists’ movement. After blockading and shutting down the oil terminals in June 2013, the group started to make political demands, restored the decentralized style of administration that existed before Qaddafi, and revived a 1958 resource revenue-sharing agreement between the country’s three original constituent regions (Barqa, Tarabulus and Fezzan). The central government in Tripoli ignored the group’s repeated demands for dialogue in the hope that the problem would fade away with time. However, the authorities’ indecision has led to more than $8 billion in losses and forced the government to dip into its reserves to cover its spending plans.

During the last six months, Jathran formed the Barqa Political Office, appointed a prime minister, and approved a 24-member cabinet. He also established the Barqa Defense Force, estimated by some observers to number up to twenty thousand troops, boasting a significant array of heavy weapons.

Most importantly, the Barqa government has established its own rival oil and gas corporation to oversee the marketing and sales of oil and gas in the region. The central government hoped that by ignoring Jathran and his demands his support base would shrink and he would eventually give in. In fact, though, Jathran used the opportunity to strengthen his position by engaging with local and tribal leaders and seems to have succeeded in widening his base support over the last six months. As a result, the government in Tripoli is now struggling with a shortage of cash.

It is now apparent that the government inaction over the last six months has allowed Jathran to carry out a charm offensive in his region, steadily building his group into a key player on the political scene. Having established his organization’s presence at home, Jathran is allegedly working to promote it to the world. Last week, Canada’s National Post newspaper published documents revealing an agreement between Jathran and Montreal-based lobbying group headed by a controversial lobbyist named Ari Ben-Menashe, who has agreed to help the group promote its interests and achieve international recognition. This development has led the government and its forces to step up their campaign to undermine the Barqa government and scare any potential oil buyers away by threatening to intercept and even sink any unauthorized vessels attempting to load crude oil from the blockaded ports.

Jathran is using the political infighting and struggle for power in Tripoli to further his cause. He is exploiting the government’s lack of transparency and the public’s disillusionment with the governing institutions to widen his support base. The increasingly unpopular interim parliament, the General National Council, is mired in an intrigue aimed at unseating current Prime Minister Ali Zeidan.

The disarray of the government in Tripoli can only galvanize support for Jathran in eastern Libya. The central government has threatened to use force to reopen the oil ports on many different occasions, but its threats are no longer credible due to its failure to act over the last six months. In his weekly press conference, Prime Minister Zeidan renewed his threats to Jathran and his men, but admitted that his government was reluctant to use force because Libyan blood would be shed and that sending troops against the federalists might have dire consequences for national unity. The prime minister’s remarks seemed to suggest that, should it resort to force, the government could trigger a new civil war.

Currently the authorities in Tripoli have two options for addressing the ongoing oil crisis. The first is to conduct dialogue with the federalists and use local pressure in eastern Libya with the aim of negotiating a comprehensive political deal that would end the standoff peacefully. The second is for the government to use force to retake the oil terminals, an enormously risky undertaking at best. What has become eminently clear is that the government’s previous policy of wait-and-see is no longer a viable option.  

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.