Libya Tribune

Dictator Moamar Kaddafi was overthrown and killed in 2011 but Libya has still not been able to form a unified government, despite the efforts of neighbors (especially Egypt and Algeria) and the UN.

National elections were held in 2014 and the new House of Representatives (HoR) government found that militias that controlled the west (including the traditional capital Tripoli) refused to recognize it. The UN backed the HoR but the western groups tended to be more tribal and religiously conservative refused to give up power, seized control of Tripoli and became known as “the Tripoli government”.

The HoR and the government it had formed fled east to Tobruk and became known as “the Tobruk government”. The HoR rallied most of eastern Libya behind them.

By early 2016 the UN persuaded most Tripoli and HoR factions to merge and form the GNA (Government of National Accord). The main obstacles to national unity remained some Islamic terrorist groups and tribal leaders seeking a better deal. The problem is worst in the east where many HoR factions have rallied around the powerful military forces organized by Khalifa Hiftar. The HoR government is still based in Tobruk and is trying to work out a peace deal with GNA.

Hiftar remains the most powerful man in eastern Libya. He gained this position by spending several years rebuilding the LNA (the Libyan National Army) after 2011. The LNA is made up of what is left of the pre-2011 Libyan Armed Forces and local tribal militias. Hiftar continues to command the LNA and has refused to recognize the GNA in large part because of mutual distrust.

Many Libyans fear Hiftar could turn into another military dictator, like the late Kaddafii. Libyans note that next door in Egypt another general recently got elected president and is trying to make his rule permanent.

Hiftar is aware of that and despite his longtime support for democracy in Libya he cannot escape the fact that he is a military man and a very effective one.

Another problem is that Hiftar and his eastern allies are hostile to the Islamic conservative militias that still dominate the west and Tripoli. In the west there are many pro-Hiftar factions, like the Berbers south of Tripoli. Religion and resentment (over some other group getting a better deal) have long been a problem in Libya.

But during 2016 Hiftar has come under growing local and international pressure to support the GNA. He may do that but he still has allies among powerful Arab nations, like Egypt. Jordan and the UAE.

He also has contacts in Russia, which believes Hiftar is someone who will still wield power when peace returns to Libya and will be able to help Russia to once more become the major arms supplier to Libya.

There is growing popular pressure for the GNA to make a deal with the H0R over the Hiftar dispute. HoR and many other groups in the east want Hiftar to continue as head of the Libyan armed forces while the UN backed GNA wants to replace him because of Hiftars hostility to Islamic groups. .

Although Libya united to crush ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) the country is still divided by religion with dozens of powerful local militias run by Islamic conservatives.

These groups are particularly powerful in the west and the Islamic militias there were persuaded to support the UN backed GNA national government by promises that eastern military coalition organized by Khalifa Hiftar would be suppressed. That has proved difficult to do because Hiftar is popular in the east (and in many parts of the west and south) because of his determination to crush or disband all Islamic conservative militias.

He has shut down most Islamic terrorist groups in the east and prevented ISIL from expanding east from Sirte. Yet is was largely pro-GNA Islamic militias that destroyed ISIL in Sirte and these victorious militias want the GNA and the UN to do something about Hiftar.

The militias lost over 700 dead in Sirte, plus another 400 very badly wounded and nearly 3,000 with lesser injuries. These Islamic militias are not looking for another costly fight and are particularly reluctant to take on the Hiftar forces themselves because Hiftar has been very successful at destroying, or at least defeating, Islamic conservative groups.

In large part this is because Hiftar has been able to form a coalition of the many tribes or town militias that do not want a government dominated by religious conservatives. This is a reaction to the decades of oppressive rule by Kaddafi.

Libya has always been very corrupt and Kaddafi remained in power for decades by playing the tribes off on each other with oil income and by invoking religion. Those who cooperated got more, those who caused trouble got less or were punished for opposing Islam. With Kaddafi gone many tribes wanted payback for past injustices (real or imagined) and no repeat of the Kaddafi methods.

Oil And Survival

Oil income has shrunk since 2011 and the Central Bank cash reserves are shrinking to nothing. If peace and unity are not achieved soon the government will no longer be able to import food and other essentials. Even by Middle Eastern standards Libya is setting a new records in self-destructive behavior.

At the end of 2016 more Libyans were agreeing that the situation was indeed becoming desperate and more compromise was the only solution. Compromise has come slowly but oil production has gone from 300,000 barrels a day a year ago to 600,000 in December and 700,000 now.

General Hiftar is seeking to force the GNA to accept him and he is succeeding because he controls key oil export ports, pipelines and oil fields. Unless the oil exports can be resumed in a big way the GNA faces nationwide criticism and violence because that oil income is the basis for the national economy.

By November the GNA had managed to double oil exports and oil income. Production was crippled by lack of GNA control in the east and for nearly a year has been less than 20 percent of what it was (1.6 million barrels a day) before 2011.

If the pro-Hiftar forces could be kept from interfering, the GNA felt it had a good chance of getting oil production up to 900,000 barrels a day by the end of 2016. That is 56 percent of the pre-2011 production. That is not going to happen and less there is more compromise all around.

The inability of the GNA to take control of eastern oil facilities controlled by Hiftar and other dissident groups means current production is restricted more by politics than anything else. One thing everyone can agree on is that the standard of living has declined sharply since 2011 because of the reduced oil income.

Per capita income is about 30 percent of what it was in 2011 and that will further decline in 2017 even as oil shipments increase. Mass starvation is no longer a theoretical threat or conspiracy theory. It is happening and that is causing many factions to become cooperative, for now.

Inflation, which averaged 8.8 percent in 2015 has more than doubled in 2016 to at least 25 percent. Financial reserves (to pay for imports) have gone from $108 billion in 2014 to under $40 billion now.

The combination of lower oil prices and reduced production means GDP has shrunk by two-thirds because the economy was based on oil income. Increased privation has got everyone’s attention but not a lot more cooperation.

January 11, 2017: The Russian aircraft carrier Kuznetsov and its escorts arrived off the coast of eastern Libya. The carrier sent a helicopter to nearby Tobruk and picked up Khalifa Hiftar and two other senior officers (all in uniform) and took them to the carrier. The visit to the Kuznetsov was captured on video and broadcast. The video showed the event treated as an official visit with sailors in dress uniforms lined up and a band playing the Libyan national anthem.

Hiftar was given a tour of the ship and then held a video conference (not shown) with the Russian defense minister back in Moscow. Hiftar has been trying to get Russia to defy the UN arms embargo and provide pro-Hiftar forces with weapons.

Hiftar is the head of the H0R armed forces and the most powerful man in eastern Libya. He has cultivated contacts in Russia, which believes Hiftar is someone who will still wield power when peace returns to Libya and will be able to help Russia to once more become the major arms supplier to Libya.

Hiftar made two trips to Moscow in 2016. (June and November). Hiftar visits Egypt regularly and visited Russia in late June 2016. Hiftar has managed to keep Egypt, a few other Arab states and Russia providing support.

Egypt allows banned goods (like weapons and ammo) cross the border unhindered. Russia is known to have printed new currency for HoR earlier in 2016 and has provided unspecified military support.

Russia also provides HoR with some support inside the UN as one of the few countries that can veto proposed UN resolutions. Hiftar has recently visited Egypt and Jordan.

Egypt is particularly important because it is again run by a former general and feels Libya needs the same kind of leader. But Egypt is under a lot of pressure from the UN to get behind the GNA, which Egypt sees as too cozy with Islamic conservative groups. Algeria feels the same way as do many Tunisians.

January 9, 2017: Italy reopened its embassy in Tripoli after shutting it down in February 2015. Back then Italy warned its citizens to stay away. But Italian companies and individuals will work in Libya, at least anywhere the locals can provide security. Growing violence, especially by Islamic militias caused more embassies to close in 2014 and 2015.

In the east LNA troops arrested Abu Alzupir Al Ansari, a senior leader the leader of Ansar Al Sharia. It took two days to confirm his identity as the LNA had no pictures of him. For over two years (until November 2016) this group was very active in Benghazi.

In mid-2014 Ansar Al-Sharia declared that Benghazi was under their control and was now an Islamic emirate. That was not true. While government and anti-terrorist militias had withdrawn from parts of the city, so had Islamic terrorist groups. Abu Alzupir Al Ansari led one of the most troublesome holdout groups in Benghazi and was apparently trying to escape Libya with his two wives and children when their car broke down on a road leading south.

January 8, 2017: In the west (south of Tripoli) Berber militiamen seized a natural gas pumping station and shut off the supply of fuel to the power plant that supplies electricity to most of western Libya. Reserve fuel will last until the end of the week and then there will be widespread blackouts. It is unclear what the Berbers want this time but it probably has something to do with the GNA/HoR dispute and Hiftar (who most Berbers back).

January 5, 2017: Most of the remaining ISIL members and their families fled from their Benghazi base and headed for Derna (200 kilometers southwest of Benghazi). In early 2016 ISIL was driven from Derna, which they had been unsuccessfully trying to take since late 2015. Derna is about the same size (100,000 population) as the ISIL “capital” Sirte.

The ISIL reverses at Derna were the result of stubborn local militias and the recent arrival of LNA forces. General Hiftar, the LNA commander, is not popular with some of the Derna militias, especially those composed of Islamic conservatives and these groups eventually fought back. Now they are being pushed out of the area.

The GNA accuses Hiftar of illegally attempting to take control of Derna while Hiftar says he wants to remove any Islamic conservative or terrorist militias still in Derna.

January 3, 2017: The GNA is threatening to use “force majeure” against the northwestern ports of Zawiya and Zuwara to try and halt the illegal export of fuel (and much else). Force majeure is a legal step indicating that circumstances beyond its control cancel existing export agreements.

This was previously used to protect Libya from being sued for damages by companies that had bought oil that was now not going to be delivered because outlaw militias had taken control of oil facilities.

This means the buyers will end up spending more to buy the oil they need on the open oil market, rather than pay a lower negotiated price. There’s a price for using force majeure, and that is lower prices for your oil in the future until you restore faith in your ability to fulfill your contracts.

Zuwara is 60 kilometers from the Tunisian border and 100 kilometers west of Tripoli while nearby Zawiya is 50 kilometers west of Tripoli.

Back in 2011 Zawiya was a rebel stronghold in the midst of a region that was largely pro-Kaddafi. The rebels held all or part of Zawiya throughout the months of rebellion against Kaddafi.

Zawiya controls the road from Tripoli to Tunisia. This was a key supply line for Kaddafi, and the rebels made it largely unusable. The rebel defenders of Zawiya suffered a lot and some of them still want payback for their sacrifices.

Many of the Zawiya rebels turned into outlaws and that led to a flourishing smuggling business. Nearby Zuwara used be a popular vacation destination for Libyan and foreign vacationers.

Smugglers thrived there for a while because criminals could pay off local militias or whoever has the power in an area. But in 2015 large death tolls from people smuggler boats that sank offshore led to many bodies washing up on the tourist beaches. This outraged many residents of Zuwara who demanded action from the local militias.

The gangs involved agreed to move their people smuggling operation to another town but kept smuggling less controversial items like fuel.

January 2, 2017: An LNA warplane attacked the GNA controlled airbase at Sheba (400 kilometers south of Tripoli) wounding several people aboard a C-130 transport. One of the badly wounded was a local Islamic conservative militia commander involved in the Derna fighting.

December 31, 2016: In the southeast Chad closed its borders to prevent ISIL and other Islamic terrorists fleeing recent defeats in Sirte and Benghazi from escaping via Chad.

December 30, 2016: The HoR government refuses to accept the 2017 national budget proposed by the GNA. Because of its military forces and control of many oil producing and export facilities in the east, the H0R has something of a veto power over GNA decisions. Agreeing to a “temporary national budget” was supposed to be a precondition for unification talks but that is not working out.

December 18, 2016: The UN recognized GNA government proclaimed that the ISIL occupation of the coastal city of Sirte had ended as the last neighborhood containing any ISIL gunmen was taken over by pro-government militia.

This is highly symbolic because Sirte was the home town of deposed (in 2011) Libyan dictator Kaddafi. After that Libya turned into something of a sanctuary for Islamic terrorists. Not so much because the Libyan government allowed it, but more because the government could not prevent it.

Sirte was the last city to have law and order restored by government security forces and pro-government armed groups. Meanwhile in the south (away from the narrow “green” coastal area) the vast and thinly populated semi-desert and desert areas has still come under any government control for some time. Here the Islamic terror groups could operate more freely.

While Algeria has managed, by 2016, to get enough security personnel, especially soldiers, on the Libyan border to keep Islamic terrorists out, the threat remains from the large number of Islamic terrorists still in southern Libya.

Tunisia and Algeria have done a lot to help Libya take care of the terrorism problem there although the political situation there is still a mess.

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