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Breaking the Libyan Oil Blockade

A Libyan security officer walks by an oil drill on March 23, 2013 at the al-Ghani oil field, belonging to Libya's Harouge Oil Operations company, near the city of Waddan in the central Al-Jufrah province (ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/Getty Images).
A Libyan security officer walks by an oil drill on March 23, 2013 at the Al-Ghani oil field, belonging to Libya’s Harouge Oil Operations company, near the city of Waddan in the central Al-Jufrah province. (ABDULLAH DOMA/AFP/Getty Images)
Libya is currently facing one of its most complex dilemmas. The continuing occupation of multiple oil and gas production sites, pipelines, platforms and export terminals by armed protestors has cut oil production to a sixth of the level it was at as late as July. As this cut in production, and thus in government revenue, forces Libya to dip into its savings to keep the government operating, a rash of assassinations of security officials, criminal activity, and sporadic militia clashes have spread the nascent Libyan security institutions thin. A recent political opinion focus group survey conducted by the National Democratic Institute found that “Libyans blame the government for continued insecurity and express a desire for the state to exert its authority and address the issue.”

Time and time again, the Libyan government has threatened the use of force, but weak security institutions and an ingrained dislike of using force against protestors (even armed ones), especially on behalf of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, have so far prevented the use of force as a viable option. In recent weeks, the government has seemingly changed its policies regarding the use of force. On December 1, the Libyan Army warned groups occupying oil and gas installations to disperse—or else. By December 4 Libyan Oil Minister Abdelbari Al-Arusi had said that those oil ports still closed would reopen by December 10—without describing exactly what the plan to reopen them might entail.

Arusi failed to repeat that two-week deadline for reopening the oil ports in a statement to the press on December 7, highlighting the serious questions that remain about the government’s capacity to carry out any such plan. However, the recent withdrawal of outside militias from Tripoli, followed by an influx of soldiers to take over the security function the brigades were performing and ensure their removal, may signal a turning point for the nation. Hope is growing that a solution can be reached to remove the unauthorized armed groups throughout the country, including those disrupting oil and gas sites.

A solution cannot come too soon. After five months of severe cuts in its oil and gas production, the main source of government revenue and the country’s income, Libya is facing unexpected budgetary shortfalls. Output has fallen to just 225,000 barrels per day (bpd), or only 20 percent of capacity, as the oil minister said in a statement on December 7, reiterating comments made by the prime minister in late November. The Libyan government has already dipped into its foreign currency reserves for 7 billion US dollars, and Deputy Central Bank Governor Ali El-Hebri said on December 3 that it will have to spend another 6 billion dollars this month to keep functioning, assuming oil strikes continue.

Strikes and protests

Though the tactics used to extract concessions from the government at various oil and gas installations are similar, the demands and desires of groups are different. In western and southern Libya, ethnic minorities long oppressed under Gaddafi have been the primary participants in disrupting oil and gas operations, seeking legal protections to prevent further marginalization. The Southern Sharara oilfield was shut down for the sixth time on October 27 by a Tuareg group seeking greater access to citizenship registration, development of local areas, and the reinstatement of local council members rejected by the central government. Oil exports from the Western oil terminal at Zawiya halted as a result. A Tebu group has also been blockading the Sarir field in southern Libya, hoping to get improved infrastructure in the area as well as a separate local council in Kufra for their group.

On October 26, an Amazigh group began occupation of the Mellitah terminal and threatened to cut the flow of gas through the Greenstream pipeline to Italy if the minority representation allotted to the Amazigh in the future constitutional drafting committee was not increased. Encouragingly, they suspended the Mellitah blockade on November 16, out of sensitivity to the tragic deaths in Tripoli at the hand of the militias.

A major concern for the Amazigh community is the recognition of their language, Tamazight, as an official language in the new Libyan constitution. In one move that may lessen incentives to disrupt oil and gas operations in Libya’s northwest, the Ministry of Education announced that Tamazight will be taught as a subject in schools in Amazigh areas starting next year. On November 24, a measure to give Tamazight official language status in the Temporary Constitutional Declaration received a majority of votes in the General National Congress, but the measure was not enacted because constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority of votes.

A more intractable problem is the oil strikes in Eastern Libya at Sidra, Ras Lanuf, Brega and Zueitina. Those stoppages have turned from strikes over employee grievances into an attempt at asserting autonomy for Libya’s eastern Cyrenaica region. Petroleum Facilities Guard members under the direction of Ibrahim Jadhran have occupied oil installations since July. Once the commander of the central region of the Petroleum Facilities Guard sworn to protect petroleum facilities from armed occupiers, Jadhran is now head of the Political Bureau of Cyrenaica, one of the major federalist groups in the country.

The Political Bureau of Cyrenaica unilaterally declared a federal state in Cyrenaica on October 24 with its own prime minister and Council of Ministers and announced a separate oil company, the Libyan Oil and Gas Corporation, on November 11. Jadhran intends to sell oil from Eastern Libya through the new company, asserting that he would be a better guardian for the region’s oil revenue than the current government. Meanwhile, the central government views him as a criminal who would keep oil proceeds for his own benefit.

Breaking the blockades

Initial steps to bring oil and gas production back to their pre-summer levels have met with little success so far, but there may still be cause for optimism as the political and security situations on the ground evolve. Still, the government’s efforts have been ineffective. On October 20, the Ministry of Defense warned that any oil tanker or other vessel entering Libyan waters without permission would be destroyed, a measure intended to prevent unauthorized oil sales. On November 11, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan gave Ibrahim Jadhran a 10-day deadline to disperse. When the deadline was reached on November 22, Zeidan said in a press conference that “action” would be taken, but that unspecified “action” has yet to take place.

Extensive mediation attempts have taken place in Eastern Libya over the past few months involving central government officials, protestors, and with seemingly little headway, but Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said on December 4 that “there is a set of measures about to be implemented that will lead to” a deal to reopen the oil ports by December 10. Such pronouncements are usually treated with skepticism, as the government lacks credibility and its bargaining position has been severely weakened by previous appeasement efforts and its lack of monopoly over the use of force.

Despite the many failed attempts to restore oil and gas production to last summer’s levels, something has changed. More than two years after the end of the Libyan revolution, the central authorities, in coordination with local leaders, have finally started to regain power over the militias. According to Law 27 regarding Tripoli and Law 53 regarding Benghazi, all militias should leave those cities and give up their weapons by the end of the year. Groups that do not comply will be removed by force. Some are even becoming optimistic that real progress may be achieved because of the new mood among ordinary Libyans.

True, that new mood followed a tragedy. At least 43 died and at least 460 were injured on November 15, when a militia from Misrata fired anti-aircraft weapons into a crowd of demonstrators organized by the Tripoli Local Council calling for non-local brigades to leave the city. After that tragedy, militias actually began to comply with Law 27 and started to withdraw from Tripoli, replaced in their security functions by newly minted soldiers from Libya’s official army. Following the start of the withdrawal of militias from Tripoli and the army’s partially successful removal of the Ansar Al-Sharia militia from Benghazi, armed mobs occupying oil installations could be the next to go.

It also appears that if Libya is unable to solve its problems with the militias and other armed groups internally, then a foreign peacekeeping force may be actually called in to help: The Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces warned oil strikers on December 1 “not to provide an excuse for the world to interfere in the internal affairs of our country.”

But most importantly, hope for the imminent end to Eastern oil strikes may be the increasing frustration among local populations with the economic implications of the ongoing strikes—and with it, their waning support for the protest movements. On December 4, Libyan Oil Minister Abdelbari Al-Arusi said that local people from the same tribes as the protesters had told the government that if it cannot bring an end to the crisis and enable oil ports to reopen, they would take matters into their own hands. He quoted them as saying: “If you don’t [re]open [oil and gas installations], we’re going to use force.”

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Jason Pack and Haley Cook
Jason Pack is a researcher of Libyan history at Cambridge University and editor of The 2011 Libyan Uprisings and the Struggle for the Post-Qadhafi Future (Palgrave Macmillan, June 2013). Haley Cook is director of research at Libya-Analysis.com.

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