Libya: A tale of two regions and a ship

Intense competition between Libya’s regions is a crucial factor in shaping the country’s post-revolution politics.

The oil tanker affair cost Prime Minister Ali Zeidan his job, writes El-Kikhia [Reuters]

The oil tanker affair was a great embarrassment to the Libyan government and it ultimately cost Ali Zeidan his job as prime minister despite the fact that he was powerless to do anything about it.

The post-revolution interim government was neither experienced in governance nor in setting up political institutions. Fearing that a government with a strong executive leadership might turn dictatorial, those who set up the current government vested almost all powers in the General National Congress (GNC) and very little in the executive – or in this case, Zeidan’s government.

To make matters worse, the GNC has not done much to stem the rising tide of Islamist groups in Libya because it is disproportionately influenced by a coalition of Islamist parties that emerged following the 2011 revolution.

Herein lies the dilemma and the essence of the chaos engulfing Libya. The government has neither the power nor an instrument of coercion to ensure law and order. Even the military was set up to take orders from the head of Parliament, rather than the prime minister or the minister of defense.

The Islamists in Parliament detest Zeidan because they view him as a secularist. Towards that end, they have made it extremely difficult for him to do his job and they have been an obstacle in approving all of his policies. Ideological competition is normal and healthy, yet unlike the Libyan milieu, checks and balances as well as separation of powers hem in political institutions in democratic systems.

GNC in control

In Libya, the GNC holds all the strings. To make matters worse, large factions maintain militias. The Islamic faction supports The Room of Thuwar Libya, which arrested Zeidan a few months ago. The secularist National Forces Alliance have the Qaqaa and Sawaiq brigades, which threatened to remove the GNC when the NFA demanded the resignation of the GNC. Misurata’s militia has filled the vacuum left by the effete Libyan military. When the military refused to follow Zeidan’s orders, he turned to the Misurata militia, which obliged but got paid.

A case in point was the removal of Muammar Gaddafi supporters from a southern base. The military refused to comply with the prime minister’s orders and the GNC did not back him up. Zeidan turned to the Misurata militia, which did the job.

A more recent example involved the North Korean registered oil tanker that illegally entered Libyan waters and acquired an illegal shipment of Libyan oil. The prime minister ordered the Air Force to sink the tanker. When his orders were ignored, he instructed the navy to intercept it. That order was also ignored, forcing him to call upon the Misuratans to come to his aid. They tried but did not succeed as they did not have the necessary equipment to prevent the tanker from outpacing them.

After 12 weeks of debates, the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies in the GNC have finally managed to garner enough votes to remove the prime minister – albeit, the vote was mired in controversy and accusations of illegality and fraud.

The final part of the puzzle can be found in the eastern province of Cyrenaica where most of Libya’s oil and water can be  found. It is the cradle of the revolution and the most neglected part of the country.

Tribes but not tribal?

The Libyan revolution is still unfolding and it will – undoubtedly –  take time before a comprehensible image reflecting the new realities in the country comes into focus. Explaining Libya’s turmoil in tribal terms is,  for all intents and purposes, barking up the wrong tree. Libya has tribes but it is not a tribal society.

The country is overwhelmingly urban and while tribal identification has emerged in response to the state of insecurity, it is not a pivotal factor.

The most recent approach to explain the instability is now tied to the militias and their influence in the disruption of Libyan society and the fall of the current prime minister. However, neither of these explanations tells the full story because the sources of Libya’s current problems are structural. These problems will not disappear until the structure is either revamped or replaced by an entirely new one.

The country’s multi-faceted and multi-layered structural issues are best exemplified by the massive incongruence between social structures in the East and the West regions.

Intense competition

The power struggle in western and southern Libya is not based on tribes. It’s rooted in competition and jockeying for power between regions such a Misurata vs Zintan, or Warshfana vs Zawya, Bani Walid vs Misurata, Jabal al-Garbi vs Geryan, or Tabu vs Awlad Sliman.

Misurata has many tribes, as does Zintan and Bani Walid. Power struggle among these regions has been the major problem for the ruling authorities. The most serious issue is not the competition between the regions but the hostility and intensity of the competition. It is such that actors can annihilate one another without pausing to think about the consequences of their actions or the resulting human tragedy. 

Such rivalry finds roots in the past  during independence period in 1947-1950. The same regional competition almost prevented the country from gaining its independence and was only avoided when Cyrenaica, the eastern coastal region of Libya, gave the western provinces an ultimatum to put an end to that senseless rivalry and instability, and fall under the leadership of the Sanusi family.

The alternative was the splitting of Cyrenaica into an independent state. Indeed Cyrenaica did declare itself an independent Kingdom in 1949 but soon metamorphosed into the Kingdom of Libya when the West and South fell in line and ended their conflict.

Ideological struggle

Cyrenaica has more tribes than the western region but tribalism plays a miniscule role in politics. Unlike the west, where the conflict is the result of regional competition, conflict in the eastern provinces is the result of an ideological struggle. It is a struggle between middle-of-the-road progressives and Islamist goups. The Sufist Sanusiya religious movement upholds a centrist view of Islam and, as a result, protected Libya for many years from radicalism that came to it from the East.

Unfortunately, Colonel Gaddafi, in his ceaseless attempt to demonise the Sanusiya movement, opened the floodgates to radical organisations that planted themselves in Libya for the past quarter of a century. His attempt to eradicate Islamist groups militarily was a complete failure and merely drove them underground. They have now emerged to pose a serious threat not only to Libya but also to all North Africa region.

The final part of the puzzle can be found in the eastern province of Cyrenaica where most of Libya’s oil and water can be found. It is the cradle of the revolution and the most neglected part of the country. Cyrenaicans are fiercely independent and want a larger share of autonomy, freedom, and access to their resources.

The deadlock in the GNC and the inability of the government to provide relief from four decades of Gaddafi-imposed poverty as well as the state of insecurity pushed its inhabitants to the edge.

In a recent incident, Ibrahim Jathran, a 33-year-old guard of the main oil ports, shut down oil production. He demanded that gauges be put on the oil pumps at the terminals as well as an accounting of where the oil money has gone since the revolution. A final demand was that a referendum on federalism be conducted in Cyrenaica.

None of his demands were met and as a result he formed a provincial government and sought buyers for Cyrenaica’s oil. Most Cyrenaicans do not support Jathran’s efforts even though they sympathise with his goals and do want more autonomy and a larger share of the wealth.

But in a context of chaos, nothing is certain. Libya will hold elections for a new Parliament in July 2014 and if the election of the constitutional committee of 60 is any indication, the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies are likely to lose all their seats in Parliament. The only certainty though is that people’s patience is running thin as a result of  the deadlock in the GNC, the government’s inability to provide relief from four decades of Gaddafi-imposed poverty as well as the ever deteriorating state of security.

Dr Mansour O El-Kikhia is a columnist, educator, and writer on International and Middle Eastern affairs.