Libya: ‘There is no easy way out’

Held up as one of the success stories of the Arab Spring, Libya has taken a turn to chaos
Abdel Magid al Fergany / AP / CP

For almost two months now, the gunmen have brought Libya’s economy to a dead halt. One group of disgruntled tribesmen in the west have seized control of the major oil fields, and another set of strikers, protesters and militiamen are blockading the oil terminals along the eastern coast. Their demands are diverse—greater regional autonomy, an end to corruption, better pay, more jobs—but their effect singular. Oil production has dropped by more than 90 per cent, and exports—the cash generator that provides two-thirds of state revenues and keeps the central government afloat—went from 830,000 barrels a day in July, to a low of 80,000 per day in early September.

The country’s highest religious authority, the Grand Mufti, declared that disruptions of Libya’s oil industry, for any reason whatsoever, are a “grave sin.” Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has tried blandishments—pushing through a 20 per cent raise for employees of the national oil company—and veiled threats. “I hope that we won’t be forced to do something that we don’t want,” he told reporters in Tripoli last week. “But I won’t let anyone hold Libya and its resources hostage to irresponsible acts of these groups for long.” Although lacking a proper army, and stuck with an undermanned and outgunned police force, it’s hard to see how he could back up the tough talk.

As the second anniversary of the fall of Moammar Gadhafi approaches, Libya’s future is looking more and more precarious. Months of squabbling over legislation to bar the former dictator’s followers from public life has left the already fragile interim government deeply divided. In many parts of the country, the armed groups that led the bloody eight-month revolution remain laws unto themselves. Public frustration at the slow pace of reform and a general lack of services—including health care, education, and power—mushrooms by the day. And the favoured form of political protest has become the small siege.

Last spring, the Revolutionary Brigades—the new quasi-army formed from militias that the government has promised to put on the payroll—turned its guns on the General National Congress, forcing legislators to temporarily suspend their activities. Then they blockaded the ministries of justice, the interior and foreign affairs for more than two weeks, all to push for even tougher sanctions against those who once worked for Gadhafi. In June, there were two days of fierce fighting between rival militias in the streets of Tripoli, followed by a series of car bombings, in both the capital and the eastern city of Benghazi. In early September, Tripoli’s water supply was cut off for 10 days when members of the Magraha tribe—upset over the kidnapping of one of their kinswomen—shut down a pumping station at the source, several hundred kilometres to the south. Weary residents survived on bottled water, and pumped out their air conditioners in order to flush toilets.

“The continuing volatile security situation in Libya in general, and in the eastern and southern parts of the country in particular, is a source of grave concern,” a United Nations report to the Security Council warned last week. Government officials and buildings have come under attack, as have foreign diplomats and embassies. The stumbling economy and lack of tangible improvements in people’s daily lives are fuelling an angry and increasingly polarized political culture. The country’s “insecurity should not be underestimated,” says the UN, urging the government to make the protection of civilians and rule of law “a national priority.”

Held up as one of the great success stories of the Arab Spring following its free and peaceful elections in the summer of 2012, and the victory of a liberal coalition, Libya has taken a sudden turn toward chaos. “I don’t believe that it’s a real failure scenario yet,” says Sir Richard Dalton, a former British ambassador and head of the Libya Working Group at Chatham House, a U.K. think tank. “But in the last six months, it’s become increasingly unstable.” Local disputes and conflicts are now being played out on the national stage, eroding the already slow progress of the central government. “It’s really been their failure to come to grips with the security issue and monopolize force,” says Dalton. “There are large spaces in the country that the government doesn’t control.”

Magdalena Mugrabhi, one of Amnesty International’s representatives in Libya, says there are no lack of good intentions on the part of the government. “At the highest level, the authorities are committed to the improvement of the security and the human rights situation.” But the after-effects of the 42-year dictatorship, and the drive to keep anyone who was even remotely associated with the Gadhafi era out of positions of responsibility, have left a huge knowledge gap. She cites the example of the judicial police—charged with guarding and transferring prisoners and providing security for the courts. Stripped of its old leadership and officers, the force is now about half of its pre-conflict size, and almost entirely made up of former revolutionaries. “They don’t know how to deal with detainees, and they have had little or no training in police work,” says Mugrabhi. With some 8,000 people currently in jail—mostly members of the old regime—it’s proving to be a serious problem.

For the last two years, the Western governments that helped ensure the success of the revolution via air power have taken a generally hands-off approach to the country, preferring to let Libyans solve their own problems. But that may soon change. The oil shutdown is the biggest challenge the shaky Zeidan government has ever faced, and it’s costing state coffers more than $130 million in lost revenue each day; $7.5 billion in total so far. “The government pays the militias with that revenue,” says Frederic Wehrey, a Libya expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “So the use of oil as a political weapon is a real turn for the worse.”

There are suggestions that a negotiated end to the crisis is getting closer. Last week, production resumed at one large field, and workers were busy inspecting equipment at another. There were also reports of a tentative agreement with the occupiers of three export terminals. But even if that proves true, it will take months for the country to ramp production back up to the 1.4 million barrels a day that were being produced this past spring. During a quick trip to London to meet with donors and investors, Libya’s prime minister made a plea for more boots-on-the-ground aid. “If the international community does not help in the collection of arms and ammunition, if we don’t get help in forming the army and the police, things are going to take very long,” said Zeidan. “The situation is not going to improve unless we get real and practical assistance.”

Blessed with an abundant resource, and an educated and urban population, Libya seems an unlikely candidate to become a failed state like Somalia. And despite the well-publicized attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last year and the death of ambassador Chris Stevens, there is little evidence that Islamists are gaining ground. For the most part, the militias remain focused on money and politics rather than religion. And as Wehrey notes, despite the regional squabbles there remains a strong national desire to see the sacrifices of the revolution validated by the creation of a better country. It’s just that the road forward has proven a lot rougher than people first imagined. “It’s a Herculean task to really escape from 42 years of tyrannical rule, where there were no institutions,” he says. “There is no easy way out.”

Although at present, Libyans would simply settle for someone who can keep the lights on, and the taps—for both oil and water—open.