Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Libya's healthy energy future relies on tribal unity

Libya's Higher National Elections Commission (HNEC) has announced July 7 as the new date for national elections, the HNEC chairman said June 10. The story, as reported on Libyan television, said candidates may begin their campaigns once the final candidate list is published, the chairman added. This new date for elections will hopefully create the proposed Public National Conference (PNC) that will be tasked to create a constitution and appoint leaders for the country.

Libya and its international supporters have been soberly anticipating when a set of elections can finally be held. It has been more than seven months since a NATO military intervention led to rebel groups from Libya’s east and south wresting control of the oil rich North African state from leader Moammar Gadhafi. Since then, the country has swayed between stagnation and outright internal militancy. There was some disappointment amongst the international community when Libyan officials warned early May of a postponement in their planned election dates. The interim government’s seriousness regarding the new election date is yet to be tested, as it has postponed elections before, but it is a healthy sign that Libya is on track for reinvigorating its economy and maintaining the remarkably high oil production that has begun to surpass pre-war levels.

Presently, Libya is ruled by the National Transitional Council (NTC). This group is only one of the heavily armed militia groups struggling for power in the vacuum left after Gadhafi’s death. Clashes between these armed groups are becoming a common occurrence because none can win an outright majority of support amongst the extremely tribal Libyan regions. The power struggle is already counting victims. The May 30 attack on Libya’s chief portal to the outside world, Tripoli International Airport, was carried out by militiamen belonging to a tribe known for its support of the Gadhafi regime. Prolonged fighting carried on into the next week as government forces tried to retake the airport. The often violent and extended clashes between these tribal groups and the police are also dragging in foreign nationals. A British diplomatic convoy was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) in Benghazi on June 11. One person was wounded in the attack, unnamed security and diplomatic sources said.

The division amongst the Libyan tribes is complicating the ruling NTC’s ability to project control over Libya’s regions from a centralised position, the recent attacks expose how little control over Libya the NTC has. Reconciliation efforts led to a cease-fire after 100 people were killed during six days of tribal fighting in Sabha, such a high number of deaths are part of the reasons forcing the NTC to speed elections along. While the NTC has a semi-functioning police structure to enforce rules, those police forces are unable to effectively protect the Tripoli from armed gangs. In fact, many of the armed groups in Benghazi and elsewhere ignore NTC calls to disarm, setting up de facto security forces that simply won’t recognise the government police apparatus. Unification in the East and West will be crucial for economic development and government coherence after the July 7 elections. But with all the unrest unification is becoming exceedingly difficult.

Gadhafi reigned successfully over Libya for decades because he discovered a method of balancing the various tribal factions. For example, the al-Awfea Brigade, members of which conducted the attack on the Tripoli International Airport, consists of the people from the Tarhuna tribe of the Murqub district, southeast of Tripoli. Gadhafi favoured this tribe while directly restraining other tribes including those from the Zintan region, these tribes eventually playing a strategic role in bringing down Gadhafi in 2011 and introducing a sense of poetic justice to the conflict. Today these tribes remain historical belligerents and some have become more powerful in Gadhafi’s absence.

This is the same narrative reminiscent all across the Middle East and North Africa, before and after the Arab Spring. The strongman in power ensured that no one tribe could gain predominance. He effectively managed the ethnicities of his country, and the long grievances they all harbour, to keep himself in power and avoid the terrible fate of regime overthrow. For a few of these countries, that strongman is now gone and the tribes have reverted to their natural state of territory conflict. Their tribal entitlements are becoming valid once more, but now they have the weapons and equipment to do something about it. Libya is different from the other Arab Spring victims because the government and army actually collapsed leaving doors to the armouries wide open.

Personal interests of tribes are inevitably beginning to snatch importance over the nation’s interests. The NTC originated as a group in Benghazi as the civil war in Libya intensified in 2011. Since the fall of Gadhafi the council assumed transitional control over the embattled country. Libyan civilians have expressed worry that the NTC are simply replacing one regional strongman with another, more group-designed, but just as undesirable, dictatorship. Whether or not the NTC plan to continue in power if the elections fail, they desperately need to conduct them to shake off their poor public image.

But the underlying tribal issues could potentially scuttle the elections before they even begin. Roughly half of the candidates are independents and only a fifth of the registered political parties have promised to compete in the elections, some have even called for a boycott. Add to this the very real threat of a return of Gadhafi loyalists and the situation complicates further. The NTC have already set about banning the participation if religious groups, many of which are explicitly Islamist and are gaining a dedicated and growing following from the Libyan populace. Politics in Libya is a serious game, but it’s clear that few parties are not prepared to lose the power they’ve gained since Gadhafi because of democratic elections. Especially concerning the control of the large crude oil and natural gas deposits so critical to Libya’s economy.

The infrastructure of the Libyan oil development is quickly reaching production capacity, even as May registered the highest barrels per day (bpd) output since the fighting. Libya desperately needs foreign investment to develop a neglected energy industry to try to re-enter that lucrative European market. The elections on July 7 should go some way in preparing the ground for a more stable political structure, and by extension a strong economy, even if it doesn’t immediately alleviate the deep tribal differences. The job of the new government will be to draft a working constitution and sort out the reconciliation and disarmament of the militias to establish some semblance of centralised security. Only after it stabilises the political and security situation will foreign investment be attractive.

If the new Libyan government after July 7 cannot control the militants, international energy firms such as BP and Shell will no longer just remark rhetorically about suspending oil exploration and extraction. Instead they will pull out completely and abandon drilled oil wells to simply wait out the unrest for a calmer time. This will hurt Libya economically as the expense of developing fresh oil production systems becomes more expensive as time goes on. More accessible and lucrative field are opening up around the region and beyond, leaving the world’s energy giants little choice but to move on and away from Libya in the near future.

Ultimately the health of Libya’s economy will depend on just how quickly and convincingly they can tie up loose political ends and form a working government. Just how that government will look considering the disparate players involved is unknown. Many in Libya do not expect the elections to result in a favourable political spectrum, and of course the NTC is unlikely to relinquish control if the elections indicate divisive results.

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