Libya Gone Wild

There is a movement in Eastern Libya that is looking back to the 1951 Libyan Constitution executed by King Idris as they struggle to find their political way. Many journalists are reporting that this means Eastern Libyan wants complete independence. Not to say that some may fantasize about having their own country of Cyrenaica, but in reality, total independence is not reality.

On November 2nd, an inaugural ceremony was held in Ajdabiya where the Eastern Libyan government was formed under the name Political Bureau of Cyrenaica (POC). This newly formed government is intended to represent the four providences within the region of Cyrenaica (or Barqa in Arabic) with Benghazi as it’s capital. More than 20 ministers took an oath of service to join the movement’s leader, Ibrahim Jathran, to challenge Libya’s Central Government, which has had difficulty unifying the “People of Libya” and gaining control of the powerful militia groups who still run the country by tribal boundaries.

The Emerging Eastern Leader

Libya three regions
Libya’s three regions as defined by King Muhammad Idris asSenussi

Ibrahim Jathran was the former head of Libya’s Petroleum Protection Force in charge of guarding oil facilities, who defected in the summer and seized the biggest ports Ras Lanuf and Es-Sider with his troops. Current protests and strikes at the oil facilities and ports have reduced productivity by 10%, which is quite an impact to the Libyan economy just trying to bounce back onto it’s feet. (Source: Al-jazeera). Abd-Rabbo al-Barasi, a defected air force commander, has taken the post of Foreign Minister. Colonel Najib Sulayman al-Hasi has been appointed commander-in-chief of a 20,000-man Barqa defense force based in the town of Brega which is an important Oil town for Libya. The NOC maintains a refinery, terminal, and all in-country distribution from Brega.

Libyans from the east historically felt subjected to discrimination and marginalization under the rule of Gaddafi. These feelings have carried forward as the post-Gaddafi interim governments have not adequately considered the needs of the cities of Libya outside of their immediate view [outside of Tripoli]. The Eastern Libyans have expressed that they continue to feel the Interim Central Government(s) marginalize them, even though they were the birthplace of the revolution.

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Eastern Libya has some of the most pristine beaches on the Mediterraean

One point in fact is the “Libya’s National Oil Company (NOC) decree on 4 October 2012 that gave its branch in Eastern Libya the autonomy to independently run operations in the east of the country.” Unfortunately on October 11, the decision was revoked, following protests by NOC employees in the west. Although it was never made clear whether the Eastern branch would have had the authorization to sell their own oil, they would have been able to do everything short of that including managing refining, production and exploration activities.

By unilaterally revoking the decision to allow Eastern Libya to run their Oil operations because of protests employees in the west was like a “slap in the face.” According to sources that I spoke with the time, their question were simple and made sense, “What was the NOC afraid of? Why let these employees push a change in policy? Didn’t the NOC Chairman know the decision would obviously cause long-term problems? Is our government run by protesting employees?”

Lybia Suhaib ar Rumi mosque, Benghazi
City View of the Suhaib ar Rumi Mosque in Benghazi

What Is Driving Libya’s Governmental Decisions?

The General National Congress (GNC) has not been able to produce a constitution, as they continue to face difficulties getting a jumpstart. They are plagued by citizen protests, militia that won’t put their arms down, and not so unexpectedly this problem with Eastern Libya which really is no small problem at all. Eastern Libya controls oil exporting terminals and major oil production fields. Recently to demonstrate their displeasure with the Central Government’s handling of government affairs, Eastern Libyan “Barqa” leaders and militias took control of oil exporting, dropping production just over one half. As oil revenue is Libya’s primary revenue, it is cutting into State revenue at such a huge rate that it should get someone’s attention.

According to Foreign Policy, Al Barassi told a news conference at the inaugural ceremony, “the aim of the regional government is to share resources in a better fashion, and to end the centralized system adopted by the authorities in Tripoli.” He dismissed accusations that the movement’s leaders are only seeking to take control of the region’s oil resources. He said, “We only want Barqa’s share according to the 1951 constitution.”

At a press conference on December 4th, Libya’s Prime Minister Ali Zeindan said that “the oil crisis had got out of control as different groups sought to impose their will on the Libyan people. Only dialogue and debate could bring about a real solution.” Obviously, a smart move to settle disputes through negotiation rather than force … this certainly demonstrates a new era in Libya government tactics from Gaddafi days. Zeidan did warn though that “patience was not endless” … and he was placing great hopes on talks that were taking place today in Tobruk. Some facilities, such as Tobruk’s refinery have been closed since before Ramadan.

The Tobruk Meeting

The Tobruk meeting was also attended by Al-Barasi and others from the POC. After a few hours, of what must have been passionate negotiations, the meeting ended with a disappointing meeting for Prime Minister Ali Zeindan.

The demands were clearly defined:

  • A crisis government must be formed in Tripoli
  • The General National Congress should not be extended past their current term
  • A commission should be appointed to examine the transparency of oil sales
  • The Political Isolation Law will be abolished
  • All Libyans who fled their homes after the revolution should be returned
    • In January 2013, UNHCR estimated 5,232 refugees of Libyan descent still outside of Libya and 59,425 continued to be displaced internally within Libya
  • All armed formations [militias] shall be dissolved
  • Exportation of oil would stop through Tobruk and a new company would be formed. The income from the new company would be distributed between the three regions of Libya: Cyrenaica, Tripoli and Fessan.
    • This distribution plan is consistent with the 1951 Constitution
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Car Bomb Damages Houses At Swedish Embassy, Libya, in October 2013

According to the Libyan Herald, “Barasi asserted that the members attending the Tobruk meeting had agreed with the terms to stop exporting oil;” and with the formation of the new company to distribute income between the regions. He said, “Zeidan had fifteen days to approve the proposal.” This sounds much like an ultimatum, and not so much like negotiation. What was not made clear was whether the POC has the support of the majority of Eastern Libyans. There are several notable members of Eastern Libya who are representatives on the GNC.

Unfortunately, the uprising in the East is only one of many pockets of malcontent the Central Government has faced recently, including the kidnapping and safe return of the Prime Minister. Libyans have been calling for leadership since the beginning of the revolution. They have been calling for accountability and transparency since the debacle the NTC made of their term in office. The message to the GNC is much the same, only the primary failure point has been their inability to disarm the militias and maintain security. Secondarily, meeting the mandates they were elected to do – most importantly to define a constitution that the Libyan People can support.

YOUTube Video: LIBYA History Repeats: Oil Rich Eastern Province Declares Autonomy, Forms State Of Barqa

Kimberly Jones
Kimberly Jones is a global nomad with a special interest in the Middle East and North Africa. She grew up in Saudi Arabia and traveled throughout the MENA growing deeply attached to the people and the culture.