WASHINGTON — Libya is plunging deeper into political turmoil with the country’s beleaguered government warning foreign shippers against loading crude oil from terminals in the East of the country controlled by federalist militias, and a majority of Libya’s fractious parliamentarians seemingly wanting to dismiss Prime Minister Ali Zeidan but unable to agree on a replacement.
Gripped by months of political turmoil analysts fear the country is edging closer to a possible break-up. A defiant Zeidan in a bid to head off a vote of no confidence by the country’s parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), told a news conference on Wednesday a vote of no confidence won’t solve the country’s problems.
“I would be happy for a vote of no confidence, but we would not be happy for the government to be left to a caretaker government. I have asked the GNC to choose a Prime Minister. I will not leave the country in an executive vacuum,” Zeidan said.
He argued his one year in office was “not enough to rebuild what was destroyed in 42 years” by the late dictator Moammer Gadhafi. He added he would be ready to step down but only if there is a serious replacement lined up.
“GNC leaders have been locked in a power struggle with Zeidan since western militias managed briefly to abduct him in October. Zeidan accused political foes inside the GNC of inspiring the kidnapping.
Two Islamist lawmakers contacted by phone told VOA a majority of the legislature wants Zeidan to go but there is no agreement on a successor as different political groups within the GNC jostle for the upper hand egged on by allies in militias that helped to topple Gadhafi more than two years ago but have refused to disband since.
Karim Mezran, a senior fellow with the Washington DC-based Atlantic Council, says that three-fourths of the GNC are against Zeidan and want him replaced but that the prime minister has managed to block a vote by playing to a minority of lawmakers - preventing a required quorum from being reached.
“Zeidan is clinging to his position no matter what, but what he is doing in effect is to keep Libya stuck,” says Mezran. “Libya is stuck with a government that is not popular and a Congress that has lost its consensus and the situation is the country is close to becoming a failed state.”
The continued push to replace Zeidan came as the standoff between his government and federalist militias in the East over control of Libyan oil escalated. The militias have said they will start selling oil independently within days. Libyan navy vessels fired on a Maltese tanker that attempted to load oil at one port that has been out of government control for six months. Zeidan, who has held off trying to lift the blockade by force fearing violence could get out of hand, has warned he is ready to “destroy or sink” any vessel that tries to load oil controlled by the federalists.
Zeidan’s authority has been weakened in large part by his failure to engineer an end to the seven-month blockade by federalists of three vital eastern oil terminals at Ras Lanuf, Es Sider and Zueitina, which collectively account for 60 percent of Libya’s oil exports. The blockade has stifled oil production, the main source of government revenue, which has fallen to ten percent of capacity.
The leader of the blockade, Ibrahim al-Jathran, who once oversaw the Petroleum Facilities Guard assigned to defend the facilities his supporters have blockaded since July, refuses to reopen the key oil-exporting ports until the Tripoli government recognizes eastern Libya, known by federalists as Cyrenaica, as a semi-autonomous region. Al-Jathran has demanded also that Cyrenaica receives the lion share of Libyan oil revenue.
On Wednesday hundreds of anti-Zeidan protesters besieged the GNC adding to the picture of chaos in the capital – combined with hazardous security involving daily targeted assassinations in Benghazi and episodic clashes between militias that have buffeted Libya for months now, throwing the country into what at times appears to be a state of anarchy.
“Libya is not one big mess,” says North Africa expert Bill Lawrence, a visiting professor of Political Science and International Affairs at George Washington University. “It is a bunch of little messes that are not very related. So, the string of assassinations in Benghazi is very different from the political game involved in the militias and their GNC allies in Tripoli, which is different from what’s going on in the borders, which is different from the fighting over smuggling of the trafficking in the South, different from the ethnic conflicts in other communities, and what is happening at the oil facilities. We tend to conflate this all because of the catastrophic weakness of the military and the police.”
Of the challenges facing Libya, the biggest “existential threat” to the country comes from the federalist movement in the East, says Lawrence. “By resisting the demands for federalism because of fears it will result in the break-up of the country, politicians from Western Libya are in danger of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby their resistance pushes the federalists to become separatists.”
A federal system was observed for most of the reign of King Idris, who ruled from 1951, after decolonization, until Gadhafi overthrew him in 1969.
The Atlantic Council’s Mezran argues Zeidan has “too much baggage and lacks the goodwill of the people and Congress to carry out the reforms and actions that are needed to right Libya.” He says that a national unity government – if one can be agreed to—has at least a chance of tackling he issue of the oil blockade and other issues from rising terrorism and criminality to corruption and general disorder.
But he cautions “a replacement government may fail too as the problems are many and the political class may lack the skills needed.”