Beyond Benghazi: Libya faces converging crises

Libya's ongoing internal chaos briefly made world news Dec. 5 as a US national, a teacher at the Benghazi International School named Ronald Smith, was shot to death under circumstances that are still unclear. Whoever was behind it, it will be a headache for Obama, whose opponents are still milking the "Benghazigate" scandal. (CNN, Dec. 5) Other than when a US citizen dies, the world media take little note the near-daily violence in the city. On the same day Smith was killed, a member of Libya's Special Forces and a young cadet were gunned down in Benghazi. And the head of the Presidential Guards of the city, Anwar al-Dous, lost a leg when an explosive device detonated under his car. (Libya Herald, Dec. 5) Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou, speaking at a Franco-African summit in Paris, responded by implying that Libya could be next for intervention:  "Our fear is that Libya falls into the hands of Salafist terrorists and that the state becomes like Somalia… Sadly, we're seeing that the terrorists are there and that armed Salafist militia are in Benghazi, with people being killed almost every day. We must stabilize Libya." (Reuters, Dec. 6)

The conflict in Benghazi is a convergence of two fundamental crises facing Libya: control of lawless militias, with little clear boundary between these and the "official" security forces, and the contest between Islamist versus secular visions of the country's future. On Dec. 4, Libya's General National Congress voted to make sharia law the foundation of all legislation and state institutions in the country. A special committee was appointed to review all existing laws. The measure was a victory for the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction party, and is opposed by pro-secular National Front Alliance. (Al Jazeera, Dec. 4)

Another convergence has struggles for local autonomy and minority rights impacting control of the country's energy resources, with oil and energy facilities repeatedly blocked by protesters in recent months. Libyan cities may be heading for blackouts in the coming days as protesters from a Black African minority group continue to blockade fuel supplies to the Sarir power station, which supplies all the country's south and east. The protesters, from the Tibu people of the country's south, are demanding greater political rights for their remote and marginal region. Strikes and protests at oilfields and ports over wages or political demands meanwhile continue to keep exports at a bare minimum, drying up state revenues. (Tripoli Post, Dec. 6)

For weeks now, a group of Amazigh (Berber) protesters have been blocking the Mellitah gas and oil plants west of Tripoli, to press their demands for local autonomy. The protesters, many of them masked and armed, have effectively shut production at the complex, and recently raised their demands in response to the central government's intransigence on constitutional recognition of their language and culture. An ultimatum from the protesters warned: "Oil tankers won't get crude from this port until Tripoli finally meets our demands." One Berber militant, identified as Younis, said: "All this started as a move to get language recognition, but today we also want to tell all those interested in setting foot on Amazigh soil that they will have to take us into account from now on."

The Mellitah complex, run as a joint venture between the Italian multinational ENI and Libya's National Oil Corporation, is now ringed by the Berber protest camps. A banner at one camp proclaims: "We are the true guardians of the revolution." Younis told Inter-Press Service: "In 2011, we Amazighs took up arms against a regime that had treated us like dogs for decades. But two years later we are still struggling for our rights against the new Libyan government." (Intercontinental Cry, Dec. 5; IPS, Nov. 9)

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  1. Was Qaddafi about to boot US oil companies?

    One Facebook partisan responded to above comment by posting a Forbes story of Jan. 2, 2009, "Is Libya Going To Boot U.S. Oil Companies?" Like the headline itself, the text is full of question marks. The money quote is Qaddafi lamenting low oil prices as "unbearable" and suggesting that Libyan oil "maybe should be owned by national companies or the public sector at this point, in order to control the oil prices, the oil production or maybe to stop it." The rest is paranoia about how Qaddafi was all buddy-buddy with Putin and Chávez (neither of whom ever nationalized their nations' oil either!), and how Libyan newspapers were "discussing nationalization." Deeper in the text, Qaddafi is quoted saying: "We hope that the prices will go up again, say $100 a barrel, so that this idea would be discarded, to stop this idea of calling for nationalization."

    Seems to us the nationalization threat was floated in the (state-controlled) newspapers so Qaddafi could use it as a bargaining chip to extract a better price. In other words, just huffing and puffing from Qaddafi, as was virtually acknowledged in his "stop this idea" line. There was certainly no follow-through from the dictator in his time remaining before the revolution. The US intervention may have been partially in response to such huffing and puffing, but nothing suggests US oil companies were really about to get nationalized—and they are demonstrably doing much worse in Libya now than under Qaddafi. The facts speak for themselves.


  2. Rosy scenarios on Libya

    Another Facebook respondent noted a Nov. 23 report in the Libya Herald on the testimony of US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Richard Schmierer to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations that "Libya is not one big mess, it is a bunch of little messes that are not very related." This smells to us like a way to portray the intervention as a success (or less of a failure) so as to lubricate the way to the next one in Syria. OK, in the above post we illustrate how various of these messes are in fact coverging. If the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs believes there are flaws in our logic, he is more than invited to respond.