When Muammar Qaddafi was overthrown in 2011, hopes ran high for a bright future in Libya. But the third anniversary on February 17 of the start of the protests that led to his downfall finds the country deeply divided in every possible way, and apparently it is only drifting farther apart. The irony is that what is dividing the country most is what should, in theory, be Libya’s greatest hope: its large oil reserves and their as-yet unrealised potential to generate wealth.
Events that would, in better times, foster greater national unity such as the anniversary of the rebellion, the Libyan football team’s upset victory in the African Nations Championship, and the elections for a constitution-drafting committee – all of which happened in the past few weeks – don’t seem to have made a dent in the country’s seemingly endless woes.
The tensions that are driving Libya towards becoming a virtually failed state are ideological, regional, tribal and clan-orientated. On the surface, the greatest tension is between rival militias who are using the power of the gun to promote their agendas. These interests are sometimes linked to political tensions between Islamists and non-Islamists, but sometimes they operate with a twisted logic of their own.
The General National Congress (GNC) has been gridlocked in recent months over endless efforts by Islamists to unseat the non-Islamist prime minister, Ali Zeidan, who had even been kidnapped briefly. Popular disgust with governmental paralysis and lack of unaccountability erupted last week in the form of large public demonstrations against the GNC – whose mandate had been due to expire earlier this month – after Islamists tried to push through a one-year extension for the parliament.
The Al Qaaqaa and Al Sawaaq militias from Zintan, who are loosely aligned with non-Islamist forces, then made a quasi-coup attempt, demanding the entire GNC resign at once or face “arrest”. The Zintan militias are frequently at loggerheads with those from Misurata, who are associated with Islamist groups. However, their intervention was miscalculated, and was rejected by all political movements, including Mahmoud Jibril, the leader of the non-Islamist National Forces Alliance.
The country appears to have simply moved on from this more serious threat, just as it did from a farcical coup attempt on February 14 by Major Gen Khalifa Haftar.
But it’s difficult to overestimate the despondency that has taken hold. Turnout in the election for the constitution-drafting panel was so low that the victors of at least 13 out of 60 seats couldn’t be determined.
If Libyans are deeply gloomy, they came by it honestly. Government gridlock, bullying by the militias, and the sense of a nation drifting towards oblivion are exacerbated by bombings, kidnappings, assassinations and strong regional, tribal and, increasingly, ethnic tensions.
Beneath the surface, however, the most important latent reason for disunity is a primal struggle over money, specifically the country’s oil revenues. Everything else is secondary to the scramble of “primitive accumulation” in a society that is re-creating itself from scratch.
Much of what appears to be about other matters – political ideology, party rivalries, regional tensions and so forth – is merely a cover for the actual motive, which is positioning to gain power with a specific focus on Libya’s potential oil wealth.
It is precisely this jockeying for influence over oil that has virtually destroyed the very industry that is so coveted. Under Qaddafi, the country’s oil was under-exploited, and its proceeds were used for extremely narrow purposes of the dictatorship and its patronage network.
In the immediate aftermath of his downfall, the oil industry appeared to be making a robust comeback. However, even as petroleum production resumed, long-standing grievances in Libya’s south and east, where much of the oil is located, were exacerbated rather than assuaged.
High unemployment and poverty, compared to western Libya and, especially, Tripoli, were not addressed in a judicious manner. Tensions ran so high that a secessionist movement emerged in the eastern region of Cyrenaica.
The government also blundered by ostensibly trying to use former militia members to “protect” the oil facilities. These quasi-official, but practically unaccountable, groups frequently clashed with other militias or angry protesters who often expressed their grievances by disrupting the crucial industry.
As a result of the chaos, and efforts by many different groups of Libyans to get their way politically by disrupting the energy sector, exports now stand at about one-tenth of the normal capacity. The economy, which should be flourishing, is instead foundering, and the government has been forced to increasingly rely on foreign savings to support a public that has not weaned itself off its dependency on the state.
It’s unlikely that Libya would have been doing splendidly by now even if it didn’t have a vast potential oil wealth. Qaddafi left it with nothing, and the rebuilding task was always going to be enormous.
But, with all parties jockeying for position with an eye on the under-exploited oil jackpot, and with so many Libyans having realised that one of the best ways to bully the state, and everybody else, is to disrupt this industry, there’s no doubt that Libya’s energy resources are counter-intuitively causing more harm than good.
For now, what ought to be Libya’s greatest asset is unfortunately proving to be its worst liability.