NARCO Analysis March 2014
I’ve been ambivalent about writing something about Libya. On the one hand, separatists in Cyrenaica realized their dream ever since the revolution of marketing their own oil, and Islamists in the General National Congress (GNC) in Tripoli realized their dream ever since his election of ousting Prime Minister Ali Zeidan. Big stuff, no doubt. But on the other hand, these events are really just milestones on a path that Libya has long been heading down. They are definitely important milestones, but anyone who has been watching Libya has seen them looming ever larger through the windshield for the last year.
The loading of a crude tanker at Es-Sidr and its subsequent departure from Libyan waters on 11 March was an enormous achievement for Cyrenaican separatist leader Ibrahim al-Jadhran. Support for al-Jadhran’s eight month old blockade of Libya’s eastern oil terminals was waning and it was unclear how much longer he would have been able to hold out without some sort of breakthrough. The loaded tanker will undoubtedly bolster support for al-Jadhran’s movement and strategy.
But it is not a foregone conclusion that the cargo has been sold and even if it has, it is unclear how revenue will make its way back to Cyrenaica. In fact, apart from the bounce that al-Jadhran will get from seeing the tanker off, he is now under the same pressure as any other leader of a hydrocarbon state – leaders are only as legitimate as their ability to channel revenue and resources to their constituencies. It’s one thing to say you’ve sold your own oil; it’s another thing to translate that into real benefits for your supporters.
At the same time, Misrata, a city that has never had access to hydrocarbons revenue, will not take the Cyrenaican events lying down. In fact, the GNC President Nouri Abu Sahmain has authorized the Misrata militia to liberate ports under al-Jadhran’s control. Misrata’s is not just any militia: it has naval patrol boats, helicopter gunships, tanks, APCs, and an arsenal of small arms. Unlike former Prime Minister Zeidan’s empty threats against al-Jadhran, Misrata can walk the walk.
However, Misrata’s rival, the Zintanis are unlikely to tolerate anything that would sanction Misrata’s rise and are as unlikely to allow Misrata to dominate Libya’s security environment as Misrata was to allow Cyrenaica to become increasingly autonomous. On top of that, Zintan’s militia leaders had supported Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, not so much because they liked Zeidan, but because they opposed Defense Minister Abdallah al-Thani who has now become Acting Prime Minister. It is worth mentioning that the leader of the Zintan militia, Osama al-Juwaili had previously served as Minister of Defense under Zeidan’s predecessor.
Meanwhile, many have characterized the GNC’s successful vote to boot Zeidan as having been orchestrated by the Muslim Brotherhood and its political party, the Justice and Construction Party (JCP). GNC President Abu Sahmain is known to sympathize with the JCP, as does the new Acting Prime Minister. The JCP itself is frequently at odds with another Islamist group, Ansar al-Sharia, which has positioned itself outside of Libya’s formal political institutions. Like every other constituency in Libya, Ansar al-Sharia has its own militia, which it has used to tragic effect in the past.
With control of the central government and Libya’s oil at stake, all of these groups, rivalries, and alliances of convenience are coming to the fore. What happens next will be violent, including the likelihood of sustained fighting between different groups, as well as intensified assassination campaigns and terrorist attacks. And while this will certainly be destabilizing and negative for the near term, as impolitic as it may sound, the pending violence may ultimately put Libya on a path toward stability over the longer term. One of the reasons that Libya has reached this impasse is that dialogue had failed, not least because there was no one in Libya that could speak authoritatively and had the capacity to translate words into action. The coming insurgency, terrorism, and violence will rent Libya asunder and it is likely to be several years before it is put back together again.