Libyan woes

March 10, 2014 - 5:00:51 am
Libya is running out of time to put its house in order. The problem with violence and internal strife is that the more time it takes to root them out, the more difficult it becomes to do so. This Arab Spring country has been hurtling down the path of instability for a long time and each day it’s getting worse than better.

The latest scuffle in Libya is between the government in Tripoli and armed rebels in the eastern part of the country who are trying to sell oil. A North Korean-flagged tanker, the Morning Glory, docked on Saturday at the port of Es Sider and reports say it had loaded $36m of crude oil. The navy and pro-government militias have dispatched boats to stop it from getting out and the rebels said any attack on the tanker would be a declaration of war. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan said the military will bomb the 37,000-tonne vessel if it tries to leave.

That the rebels have become bold enough to sell oil to foreign countries shows how tenuous the grip of the government in Tripoli is. This also shows how deeply entrenched the rebels are, and how difficult it will be to disarm them.

Libya has been trying to rebuild its army since Muammar Gaddafi’s overthrow, but it has hardly succeeded in its mission. Each Arab Spring country is afflicted with its own intractable problem, and the problem in Libya has been its battle-hardened militias. Eight months of uprising against Gaddafi had transformed them into army units, and after Gaddafi was eliminated, they set up their own fiefdoms which had been largely out of the reach of the central government.

Abb-Rabbo al-Barassi, the self-declared prime minister of a rebel movement, has warned against harming any tanker or sending navy ships into the waters of ‘Cyrenaica’. Interestingly, he was referring to the historic name of eastern Libya under King Idris, whom Gaddafi deposed in a 1969 coup. The protesters want a return to the Idris-era system under which oil revenues were shared between Libya’s regions. 

The oil incident shows that it’s time for the Libyan government to disarm the militias. This is not the first time rebels have tried to sell oil. In January, the Libyan navy fired on a Maltese-flagged tanker that it said had tried to load oil from the protesters in Es Sider, successfully chasing it away. And it’s unfortunate that three Libyan ports are in rebel hands since August. 

The militias are too strong to be disarmed immediately. But there is no alternative for Libya. Any hesitation will cause the country to splinter, and in such a scenario, it’s better to suffer the consequence of a military action against the rebels.