Libya: The Real Cause Of The Current Mess


October 3, 2014: Libya has come apart as a nation. What matters most now is the oil money, which pays for everything. The cash from oil sales is going into the Central bank, which tends to answer to the Tobruk parliaments because that is the one with international recognition and that provides access to the international banking system. The various factions are pressuring the Central Bank and courts to favor them but it is the international community that controls the ability of Libya to buy essential (most of the food and everything else) needed to keep Libyans alive. The internationally recognized government has set up shop in the small port city of Tobruk (1,600 kilometers east of Tripoli). What remains of the pre-June government has moved from Tripoli to Tobruk. Many other government offices moved as well and are finding space where they can. One government agency that did not move is the central bank and the rebel government and the Tobruk one are fighting over who controls more than $100 billion held by the central bank. A lot of that cash is overseas and since Tobruk has international and UN support the Tripoli rebels will have a hard time maintaining control of oil income.

The UN has also been trying, without much success, to get the major militias from Tripoli and Benghazi to join peace negotiations. This has not worked because so many of the militia leaders are unwilling to compromise and many refuse to even enter negotiations. All this was made clear as the UN sought to hold peace negotiations on September 29th in the southwestern city of Ghadames. With the failure of those talks the UN is now threatening economic sanctions against the major rebel militias and, more importantly, the leaders of those militias. Many of those leaders have moved assets and family members out of Libya. Nearly a third of the Libyan population has left the country because of the continued chaos and uncertainty.

All this is complicated by the fact that most of the armed groups cannot agree with each other. Most fight for their tribe or hometown. Some, especially in Benghazi, are Islamic radicals seeking a religious dictatorship that few Libyans want. There are radical groups all over the country, but mainly in Benghazi (and nearby towns) as well as (to a lesser extent) Tripoli. Many militias say they are fighting to prevent pro-Kaddafi (largely Arab) groups from taking back power. There are some pro-Kaddafi militias but they are very much a minority. Libya is becoming a failed state, similar to what happened to Somalia after the 1990 anti-government rebellion and in Afghanistan after the Russians left in 1987. In Somalia Islamic terrorist groups (mainly al Shabaab) eventually tried to take over, but failed. In Afghanistan it was the Taliban, which took over most of the country in the late 1990s, but was overthrown in late 2001 when the U.S. came to the aid of the tribes that were still fighting the Taliban. The clear lesson here is that someone will have to intervene to prevent the Islamic terrorists from gaining too much control over the country, or simply to stop the violence before the economy (oil industry) is destroyed. At the moment no one is stepping forward to intervene, mainly because it is an expensive and thankless job. Someone may still intervene to back the government and that is what the government is hoping for.

The main cause of this is disunity is that the various factions cannot agree on much The GNC (originally formed in mid-2012 to create a new constitution for the country to vote on and rule until that was done) became popular with Islamic terrorist militias and some tribal and more secular groups. The GNC has long had the support of most Islamic radical groups, especially Ansar al Sharia in Benghazi. This group was responsible for the 2012 attack that killed the American ambassador. Many of the militias from Misrata (east of Tripoli) support GNC, but many also back rebel general Hiftar or are neutral. Because the GNC has been hijacked by the Islamic radicals Hiftar sees it as illegitimate. Even many Islamic terrorists don’t trust the new parliament or the GNC. The Hiftar coalition of tribal militias and army units is not large enough to take on all the Islamic terrorist militias but continues to battle Islamic terrorist groups in Benghazi. Hiftar supports the new parliament and rule of law and is no longer considered a rebel. In turn Hiftar is believed to have active support from Egypt and the UAE (United Arab Emirates) while some of the militias are receiving support from Sudan and Qatar.

The two largest cities (Tripoli and Benghazi) are still being fought over, but the real prize is the oil. At the moment the new parliament controls many oil fields and the oil export terminals. Production is growing and is expected to reach a million barrels a day by the end of the month and 1.5 million by the end of the year. If the oil facilities are damaged in the fighting it could take a year or more to restore production. Oil revenue is what keeps the economy going, which is one reason the oil industry has not suffered much battle damage since the original 2011 revolution. But if the oil income is interrupted because of battle damage most Libyans would be dependent on foreign charity to just survive. All over the country local militias and tribal leaders are deciding which parliament to support. It is believed that most will follow the money, the oil money.

The main problem in Libya is many (over 1,500) armed groups. Most are local and exist mainly for self- defense. Only a minority (under ten percent) of these militias are involved in the current violence in Tripoli and Benghazi. Most of the militias are organized into coalitions, mainly for mutual support and because of some shared beliefs. The largest of these is the Fajr Libya Misrata militias. Then there is Ansar al Sharia, the largest Islamic terrorist group in Benghazi. This group was responsible for the 2012 attack that killed the American ambassador and has most of its strength in the east (around Benghazi). The al Zintan Revolutionaries Military Council is based in the mountains southwest of Tripoli in and around the Berber town of Zintan.

Fajr Libya also asked the Islamic terrorist dominated GNC to reform and meet in Tripoli to run the country. The revived GNC has declared itself the legitimate parliament, insisting that the June vote was invalid. Only 19 percent of eligible voters and 27 percent of registered voters showed up for the June 25th parliamentary elections (the first since Kaddafi was overthrown in 2011). Voters were discouraged by all the violence, factionalism and poor performance of those elected the first time around for the GNC. But the June vote was accepted by most Libyans and the GNC was officially replaced by a new parliament. This was largely because at the end of 2013 the deadlocked GNC extended its power for another year. This was seen by many Libyans as an illegal act. The GNC pointed out that separatist activity in the east prevented any national vote and that had to be dealt with before a constitution could be completed and approved. This was an impossible situation for the GNC and the Islamic radicals were hoping to take advantage of it.

Despite all the chaos in Tripoli and Benghazi the government has managed to get oil exports going again. By mid-September 0il production has increased to over 900,000 barrels a day which is about 60 percent of normal output. This was a high for 2014 and has since been cut over 20 percent as various local groups shut down production in as effort to get a larger share of oil money. In June production was closer to 100,000 barrels a day but government negotiators have had a lot of success since then getting various militias to stop blockading production and shipping facilities. Unfortunately these deals often collapse later and new pressure groups decide to try and blockade something and succeed at it.  Getting the oil production back to normal is essential because Libya imports nearly all its food and much else besides. Oil income pays for 95 percent of the government budget and is 65 percent of GDP. Oil is what pays for it and without oil money most Libyans would literally starve. This possibility is getting more attention from militia leaders, who are in turn hearing from their own followers about it. The militias also feed, indirectly, off the oil income because most militias maintain their armed strength by stealing and extorting cash and goods from locals to pay their people and supply them with essentials. Without that most militias would melt away to a few hardcore members and become irrelevant. Another problem with oil is the declining price (now about $96 a barrel). Lower world demand and rapidly growing supplies of North American oil and gas obtained with the new fracking technology is driving down (over 14 percent this year) the price of oil.

All the fighting in the last three months has left over 1,500 dead, many of them civilians caught in the crossfire. This is not as violent as Syria or Iraq, but more like what is going on in Nigeria and Somalia, which also suffer from Islamic terrorist violence (Boko Haram and al Shabaab respectively). Most large militia have a lot of Kaddafi era mortars, artillery and rocket launchers and like to use this stuff to fire in the general direction of whoever they are fighting with. This poorly aimed fire often lands on nearby residential areas forcing civilians to flee. The fighting is not conventional, as in “front lines”, clearly identified (by uniforms and symbols) fighters (especially with the militias) and a sense of an overall plan. The Islamic terrorist militias doing the fighting have largely (as in not always) been cut off from their government benefits (like regular pay). In most of the countries the local militias are what passes for police and their government pay is what keeps most of the militiamen quiet. The inability of the Islamic terrorist militias to run a government (in Libya and elsewhere) limits their popularity. But there are enough young men with guns who believe, at least for the moment, in Islamic radicalism to keep the Islamic terrorist militias a threat to the country. In Tripoli and Benghazi the Islamic terrorist militias still favor ambushes, assassinations and kidnappings as opposed to attacks on organized forces (the military or some of the better run militias).

Since August some 5,000 members of parliament, their families, bodyguards and various other staff have arrived in Tobruk and set up show in a seaside resort complex. Currently only about 60 percent of the 200 members of parliament are in attendance. Some have refused to attend, others were called back to their constituencies temporarily or permanently/ If the Tobruk parliament demonstrates continued control over the oil money and imports, more elected members of parliament will show up for work. One of the anti-Islamic terrorists warlords, general Hiftar, has set up bases in Tobruk, including an air base. This contains some of the warplanes and helicopters Hiftar controls. The Tobruk parliament is calling on foreign nations for help in defeating the rebel militias in Tripoli and Benghazi. At the same time many Libyans blame NATO for all their problems. The logic of this is that NATO air support for the rebels in 2011 allowed the many militias to defeat Kaddafi and then create chaos. More thoughtful Libyans, although a minority, understand that the lack of willingness by most Libyans to negotiate and compromise is the real cause of the current mess and a major part of any solution is recognizing what is really going on rather than blaming the mess on foreigners.

Egypt has offered to train Libyan Army soldiers, something which several NATO nations have already been doing. Egypt has the advantage of using Arab trainers who speak fluent Arabic and have a cultural affinity for what Libyans are going through. Egypt also offered to share intelligence it has on Libyan militias, especially those in the east (Benghazi) because some of these groups threaten Egypt and Egypt would like to see all the Islamic terrorist groups gone from Benghazi and Libya in general. That would help reduce the weapons smuggling activity which mainly goes through Egypt.

This cultural affinity is important. That was seen as Britain recently revealed that in August they had to deal with a mutiny among 300 Libyan soldiers being trained at a British base. The Libyans were selected to receive combat and leadership training so they could better train and command Libyan soldiers back in Libya. The mutiny occurred when British officers in charge of the training put three of the trainees under guard after police picked them up for being off base without permission. Then twenty other trainees went and threatened the British soldier guarding the three Libyan trainees. The British guard let the three go free rather than risk violence. Senior officers were uncertain about how to handle this insubordination given the nature of Arab military trainees. What happened with these Libyans was not uncommon when Westerners are assigned to train Arabs to be military leaders. What these trainers run into is a collection of problems that have long made it difficult for Arab, and many other poor (and often Moslem) nations to establish democratic governments or prosperous economies. A lot of the problem has to do with culture, especially culture influenced by Islam. There are a number of reasons for this and the most important problems are tribalism, different attitudes towards learning, leading and training.

Since 2011 over 30 percent of the population has fled Libya, most of them to neighboring Tunisia. That was easy to do because about 85 percent of Libya's six million people live along the coast. Some five percent are still nomadic. Other minorities comprise about six percent of the population. Nearly 100 percent of the population speaks at least some Arabic and 97 percent are Sunni Moslems. The Berber are Sunni but were never big on Islamic radicalism. Kaddafi saw the Berbers as a threat because they were not Arab but had, for over a thousand years, resisted Arab domination. The Berber nationalists have also been holding demonstrations outside oil facilities in the West, interfering with oil production.

Joining the civilian refugees are (so far) over 150,000 foreign workers, who do a lot of the technical work (especially medical or oil related) and some of the harshest manual jobs. This has caused the government to become even more unresponsive.

October 2, 2014: In Benghazi general Hiftar’s forces suffered over 80 casualties (including at least 13 dead) as they fought with Islamic terrorist militias. Hiftar does have some better armed, trained and led fighters, as well as a number of militia allies. It is unclear if Hiftar has enough to really defeat the Benghazi militias. Most of the fighting recently has been around the Benghazi airport, which some Islamic terrorist militias are trying to seize. Today’s violence was in part around the airport, which the Islamic terrorists continue to attack.

October 1, 2014: The army, which is loyal to the Tobruk parliament, said it would halt military operations in response to a UN call for a ceasefire. Some rebel militias agreed but the ceasefire effort quickly fell apart because most militias refused to participate and kept on fighting.

September 29, 2014: In the east (south of Benghazi) a militia kidnapped 70 Egyptian truck drivers and demanded that the Egyptian government release one of the militia leaders who had been arrested in Egypt for smuggling and other crimes.

September 28, 2014: The Tobruk parliament swore in the prime minister and other ministers that were finally selected after weeks of negotiations.

September 27, 2014: The Libya parliament called on the world to allow them to import weapons and to supply more military assistance, including troops and air power, to make it possible to suppress the rebel militias that control most of the country.

September 26, 2014: Just across the border in Tunisia four soldiers were wounded during a clash with smugglers trying to get 30 truckloads of goods into Libya.

September 24, 2014: One of general Hiftar’s warplanes dropped a bomb near a dock in Benghazi harbor to convince the port operator that Hiftar could destroy the port facilities if the port continued to bring in weapons and other supplies for Islamic terrorist militias there.

September 19, 2014: In the east (Benghazi) a series of assassinations in the last two days left at least ten journalists and peace group leaders dead, apparently an attempt by Islamic terrorists to silence opposition.

September 18, 2014:  Egypt has advised trucking companies to carefully choose which areas in Libya they allow their vehicles to operate. These trucks, bringing in legal goods, are subject to extortion, theft or kidnapping from the many militias operating in eastern Libya.  

September 16, 2014: In the east (Benghazi) fighting between Islamic terrorists and government forces (now including those of the former rebel general Hiftar) left at least nine dead and over twenty wounded.

September 14, 2014: The government of Libya once again accused Sudan of providing extremist Islamist militias and terror groups in Libya with weapons. Libya’s prime minister rejected Sudan’s claim that it is not supplying these groups.  Libya claimed that the Sudanese transport plane which entered Libyan air space on September 7 and landed at Tripoli, was loaded with weapons at an airfield in Sudan.





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