Over the last couple of weeks, Libya has been rocked by events that have pushed the country to the edge of full-scale civil war. It all began when the eastern Libyan province of Barqa, led by its federalist, self-proclaimed government, succeeded in selling oil independent from the central government. Then, Libya’s prime minister, Ali Zeidan, fled the country after the General National Congress (GNC) passed a "no confidence" vote to kick him out of office. Last week also saw the eruption of clashes between Misrata militias, which are loyal to the GNC, and the forces supporting Barqa’s federalist government. On Monday, a car bomb detonated at a military base in Benghazi during a graduation ceremony for new recruits. The explosion left more than five dead and at least 14 injured. (The photo above shows the crater the bomb left behind.)
On Friday, March 7, the GNC ordered the armed forces to seize a North Korean-flagged oil tanker that ignored government threats and docked at the rebel-held port of Essidra. On March 10, GNC President Nuri Abusahmain went a step further and ordered the army to send in a task force to take back the oil terminals from the armed groups that have been blockading them since summer 2013. The forces they sent were not a national army, but were made up mainly of militias from the city of Misrata.
The decision was hasty and made without careful consideration of the possible consequences of such a direct offensive. The two rival militias met near Sirte, a port city; causalities have already been reported. Luckily, attempts to deescalate the situation and resolve the issue peacefully seem to be gaining momentum. However, this will not be the last time that armed groups resort to direct confrontation, simply because Libya lacks a comprehensive political deal between the different factions. Each group aspires to run the country — or at least its own affairs — however it sees fit.
The Barqa government had repeatedly threatened to sell oil on its own if the central government continued to ignore its demands, which include the establishment of oversight and investigative bodies for the oil industry and the revival of an old profit-sharing mechanism for the oil industry. The federalists insist that they are selling oil independently in order to secure resources and funds to support the national army and police in eastern Libya to address the deteriorating security situation, after the central government’s flagrant failure to do so. The federalists also insist that Islamists and extremists are currently running the show in Libya, and that these factions see the national army and police as a political threat. These extremists have used their influence and partnerships with militias to push their political agenda through the GNC and dominate the central government. Prime Minister Zeidan corroborated these claims in his first interview after being voted out.
Nevertheless, Tripoli continues to insist that it does not recognize the Barqa government and considers the groups blockading the oil terminals to be criminals. Rather than managing the threat to Libya’s democracy, the authorities in Tripoli employed a "wait and see" approach — a tactic that led the Libyan government to lose an estimated $10 billion in oil revenues. The long wait also gave the Barqa government and its supporters the space and time to organize and form alliances with key players in eastern Libya, thereby strengthening their position and widening their support base.
Now, the central government’s overly aggressive move has only galvanized support for the Barqa government. Previously, the Barqa government had mainly recruited fighters from one tribe in the east, the Magharba tribe. Since the GNC’s mobilization, members of all of eastern Libya’s tribes are joining the federalists’ forces. Threatened by this vast mobilization of fighters, the GNC has already extended its ultimatum another two weeks, in the hopes that the two sides can still find a peaceful solution.
Many in Libya, however, were already questioning the GNC’s legitimacy after it voted in December to extend its mandate by another year, contradicting the transition plan set out by the country’s constitutional declaration. Protesters across the nation called on GNC to end its mandate on Feb. 7, its original end date. It is odd that the GNC would act on the crisis in Barqa now, after months of hesitating — but there’s no doubt that this new threat has successfully diverted the public’s attention from questioning the GNC.
The crisis in Libya also advances the interests of another group dominating the GNC’s and now the government: the Islamists. Though Islamists lack wide popular support in Libya — as the 2012 GNC elections showed — Islamist groups, such as the Justice and Construction Party (the Muslim Brotherhood’s arm in Libya), have grown more and more influential. The sacking of Prime Minister Zeidan only highlights that influence. They have used this new power to outmanoeuvre their less organized opponents and push through controversial legislation, such as the political isolation law, which neutralized opponents like Mahmoud Jibril. On another occasion, they even manipulated of votes in GNC.
The Misrata militias have ties with the Islamists, so they are not likely to win the support of the eastern Libyan community — which will give the Barqa federalists the opportunity to continue growing their support base. They may argue that creating strong regional governments (like the Barqa government) would protect Barqa and its people from the domination of Islamists or any other group.
It would not be surprising, then, if Libya’s never-ending political conflict shifts to these two opponents: local tribes and Islamist forces. The problem is two-fold: the trust gap between competing factions is only growing larger, and all of the parties look at Libya as a zero-sum game. While the Islamists fear that Libya will follow in Egypt’s footsteps, their opponents accuse them of hindering the building of a strong national army and police force, saying that they use their militias to dominate the security sector and manipulate the political process. As they are busy hashing it out, ordinary Libyans are losing faith in the democratic process, and begin to doubt its ability to make the changes they hoped to see.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.