LONDON— A standoff between Libya’s central government and militias who control oil fields threatens to escalate into conflict, after the rebels said they would sell oil directly to the world market despite a government ban. Militias in the east and south are demanding autonomy, threatening to derail Libya’s path to stability following the overthrow of Muammar Gadhafi in 2011. The lawlessness is feeding violence across the country.
The lines of cars waiting for gasoline snake through the streets of Tripoli. Libya may have among the world’s biggest oil reserves - but people are waiting for hours or even days to buy fuel. Among them is Tripoli resident Fatima.
Fatima says she has been waiting for days now. "This country… we will not be able to live here... the situation worsens every day," she says.
Militias in the east have blockaded ports and refineries - starving the country of its one primary source of cash - oil exports. Production is less than a fifth of the pre-revolution level of 1.6 million barrels per day.
Ibrahim al-Jathran, who leads the Benghazi-based militia that has led the oil blockade, says they stopped the oil shipments because the oil money goes out and comes back to suppress and terrify Libyan citizens.
Jathran’s militia has declared its own autonomous government in the east and is trying to sell oil directly on the world market - risking confrontation with Libya's navy.
Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has rejected giving any autonomy to the militias. But he has few options, says John Hamilton of analyst group Cross-Border Information.
“There’s really no prospect of the government moving against them militarily, that would be a disaster. They’ve tried bribing them, they’ve tried persuading them. The government can’t meet their political demands and so it’s a deadlock,” he said.
That deadlock must be broken if Libya is to become a stable democracy, says former U.S. diplomat Ethan Chorin, author of a book on the Libyan revolution titled Exit the Colonel.
“If things keep going in this direction then some form of federalism is not only inevitable, but probably a good idea,” said Chorin.
Compounding economic, political woes
Escalating violence is compounding Libya’s economic and political woes. This month a Briton and a New Zealander were shot dead near Tripoli. In December, Libya’s first suicide bomb attack near Benghazi killed seven soldiers.
Ethan Chorin says the deteriorating security situation can be traced to the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, in which U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
“Which essentially turned much of the east into a no-man’s land, not only for Westerners but for the central government. And certainly there are a collection of criminal and former regimist and Islamist factions that are taking advantage of the chaos,” he said.
That lawlessness has turned parts of Libya into a haven for militants, says Professor Fawaz Gerges of the London School of Economics.
“Libya has emerged now as a major base, a flow, of fighters and arms to west Africa, to north Africa, even to Syria,” said Gerges,
Bringing Libya’s factions and heavily-armed militias together under one flag continues to pose a great challenge - and analysts say the consequences of failure would impact the entire region.