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Libya on the brink
This is my column that appeared in Arab News on March 23, 2014:
By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh
It looked like a scene from a Hollywood blockbuster: The oil tanker Morning Glory, operating under a North Korean flag, loaded with $33.2 million worth of Libyan oil, was intercepted near Cyprus on the night of March 16 by US Special Forces at the request of the governments of Libya and Cyprus. Three armed Libyan rebels had taken control of the ship and were wandering around the Mediterranean Sea looking for a buyer of the oil. The Americans arrested them and the ship was handed over to the Libyan forces on Saturday.
This was another embarrassing incident for the weak central government of Libya, which since the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011 has had very little power. The heavily armed militias, who were essential in the civil war against Qaddafi, refused to lay down their weapons and integrate into the national army. They have also been demanding a fairer share of national income from oil exports, especially the eastern part of the country where Benghazi is, an area neglected for decades by Qaddafi.
The organizer of this unsuccessful attempt to sell the oil was the rebel leader Ibrahim Jathran, who seized control of the port of Es Sider, from which the Morning Glory sailed. In the week before the capture of the tanker, the then Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan had threatened to bomb and intercept the freighter if it left Libya. When this happened on March 11, Libya sent a navy ship to intercept the tanker, but could not stop it. The General National Congress (GNC), dominated by Islamists, used this failure as a convenient reason to dismiss the liberal Zeidan, who had to flee to Germany in a private jet after receiving threats to his life.
The truth is that Libya has been in a swirl of political and economic instability since the overthrow of Qaddafi. The headquarters of the GNC in Tripoli has been invaded by protesters 250 times in the last two and a half years, and domestic oil production has dropped from 1.4 million barrels per day (bpd) in July last year to 230,000 bpd today because of various militias blocking the export of oil. Even so, I reiterate that the new Libya after Qaddafi has every chance to do well as a democratic and economically vibrant state.
To be successful, the Libyans should have put in place a program to purchase all weapons loose in the country in the hands of the rebels. They should have also initiated a work program that would give employment to young Libyans who now roam the streets without doing anything useful. The central government sees itself in the awkward position of paying every militia member a salary of $1,000 per month, even when those militias turn against the government. Finally, the central government should enter into agreements with various administrative regions of the country and agree to give a greater share of oil revenue to these regions.
After 42 years of Qaddafi dictatorship, Libyans were left without an adequate political and administrative structure for the country to function as a democracy. This has left a huge vacuum that has left openings for extremists to enter and cause havoc. A good example is the city of Benghazi, where a series of terrorist attacks and murders caused nearly all of the foreign consulates to close their doors. A French citizen was killed there earlier this month and seven Egyptian Christians were found dead on a beach near Benghazi, shot execution-style.
In a wide-ranging interview published in the Libya Herald, Zeidan said that the GNC had constantly opposed all of his proposals, and had used back channels to spy on the executive branch of the government and to pressure the executive into implementing its wishes. He added that the GNC obstructed the formation of a national army, and had refused his suggestion to form funds for cities to spend on their local needs.
Perhaps the Arab League should have formed a military stabilization force that could have been deployed across Libya to help disarm the militias and allow the central government to rule effectively. Unfortunately, this was never publicly discussed. What we know for sure is that there are many strategies that could work. The question is whether the Libyans have the willpower and patience to do this. I hope so, for the good of all Libyans.