This internal struggle has undermined Tripoli’s ability to deal with dissident Benghazi.
The interception by US naval commandos of a rogue oil tanker off the coast of Cyprus has, for the time being, averted a looming conflict between the Libyan government in the west of the country and rebels based in the east.
The tanker, the Morning Glory, was hijacked by rebels who forced its crew to load a cargo of crude worth $36 million and set sail for Cyprus where potential buyers hired a launch to go out to the tanker as it anchored off the port of Limassol. The deal was aborted when the commandos took control and forced the captain to sail to Tripoli where the vessel was handed over to the government.
The incident showed that the dysfunctional government with its seat in Tripoli, the capital of the region known as Tripolitania, cannot cope with major challenges mounted by rebels operating from Benghazi in Cyrenaica, where two-thirds of Libya's oil resources are located.
Prime Minister Ali Zeidan failed to prevent the escape of the Morning Glory because he did not have a navy to intercept the ship or an army to prevent rebels from taking control of the eastern oil ports. Rival militias rule the roost. Nevertheless, his failure provided parliament with an opportunity to vote no confidence in him and elevate Abdullah al-Thinni, a former defence minister.
The coup was a reflection of the factional struggle within Tripolitania. Zeidan, a secular figure regarded as pro-Western, had the backing of the powerful militia of the mountainous Zintan region while Thinni, who is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, has the support of the rival militia from the coastal city of Misrata.
The fundamentalists can also count on the Revolutionaries Operations Room, which kidnapped Zeidan briefly last October in retaliation for the US seizure of Abu Anas al-Libi, who is under indictment in the US for his part in the 1998 US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. The militia, which had been in charge of security for Tripoli, was dismissed by parliament after the abduction but the Revo-lutionaries remain a potent grouping.
This internal struggle has undermined Tripoli's ability to deal with dissident Benghazi, the base of the eastern rebels. The cradle of the 2011 Libyan civil war that toppled Muammar Gaddafi, Benghazi gained a considerable degree of independence during the conflict and resented the return of government to Tripoli once the war ended. Neglected during Gaddafi's rule, Cyrenaica has also been demanding a large share of oil revenues to build infrastructure and foster the region's economic development.The east is beset by ideological competition between fundamentalists and moderate leftists while tribal and jihadi militias that fought Gaddafi are battling each other. Benghazi has been destabilised politically and militarily by insecurity.
Last week, a bombing at a military barracks slew nine people leaving a graduation ceremony for officers. Bombings and assassinations on an almost daily basis have been carried out by separatists and jihadi factions determined to impose their rule and the Sharia.
The Morning Glory affair sprang from Cyrenaican discontents. Ibrahim Jathran, a militia leader now in charge of the oil ports, shut down operations, demanding that gauges be installed on pumps at terminals so there can be monitoring of exports. He also called for a referendum on federalism to decide Cyrenaica's status. When he was ignored, he formed a provincial government and offered the region's oil for sale.
The siege of the oil fields and ports has dramatically reduced output and exports. Libya’s exports have fallen from 1.5 million to less than half a million barrels a day at a cost to the country of $8 billion since August 2013.
With a population of only six million and Africa’s largest oil reserves, the country could have established an effective democratic system of governance once Gaddafi was overthrown. In addition to Tripolitanian factionalism and Cyrenaican separatism, Libya has been hamstrung by his legacy. During his 42-year reign, Gaddafy monopolised power and did not permit state institutions to emerge or the rule of law to take root.
Unfortunately, the Libyans who succeeded him had no experience in governance. Fearing the re-emergence of a new dictator, they mandated a weak executive and concentrated power in the legislature, the General National Congress (GNC). The judiciary was not empowered and no effective checks and balances were installed.
The GNC has been disproportionately influenced by the Brotherhood's Justice and Construction party and its ultra-conservative Salafi allies while the cabinet has had a secular orientation. Western militias loyal to the GNC are said to have advanced toward Cyrenaica which has been given a deadline to end the oil port and field and blockade. Since Western militias are more powerful than those in the east, Libya could fall victim to an east-west civil war.