Will Federalists Spoil the UN Negotiations’ Process?
While in the past twenty-four hours international media is nearly hysterically focusing on the video release published by Islamic State cells in Libya on Sunday, other potential stumbling blocks lie in the way of negotiations towards the establishment of a national unity government and the resolution of outstanding issues and fractures fuelling the current crisis in Libya. Looking at the events occurred in and around Tobruk over the past week can give us a good insight into one of them.
On Wednesday 11 February the strike proclaimed on Sunday 8 February by local security forces that led to the closure of the port of Hariga (Tobruk) was revoked. The port was immediately re-opened and was expecting to receive an oil tanker already during the course of the same day. The strike in Hariga was engineered by local stakeholders and federalist forces as a reaction against some strong statements made by the Tobruk-based Minister of Interior Omar al-Sunki. Al-Sunki, who is a Misrata native, suggested that the Tobruk-based camp stops supporting Khalifa Haftar’s Operation Dignity and embraces political rapprochement with the city of Misrata. This proposal would have gone against some vital interests and goals of federalists and other local eastern Libya forces in that it would have accelerated their marginalisation and enhanced the leading role of the city of Misrata. It does not come as a surprise then, that on the same day that al-Sunki was sacked by his PM, Abdullah al-Thinni, the strike was revoked and the port re-opened.
However, on Saturday 14 February, a bomb exploded on the oil pipeline connecting the al-Sarir oilfield to Tobruk’s Hariga port. The explosion caused a renewed closure of Hariga’s port and started yet another oil-fire, hampering efforts to fix the damage inflicted that are now set to take even up to three days of work before the normal functioning of the pipeline can be restored.
It seems likely that this sabotage was undertaken by one of the radical Islamist Jihadist groups active in eastern Libya who aim to undercut the legitimacy and financial stability of the Tobruk-based establishment whilst avoiding a full-fledged direct military confrontation outside of urban theatres. It should be noted that whilst bombing attacks on pipelines have been frequently employed by Jihadist groups active in the Sinai Peninsula, this is the first such attack undertaken in Libya.
This bombing and the previous week’s assault on the Mabruk oilfield confirm that radical actors active on the Libyan stage increasingly see oil-related infrastructure (e.g. pipelines, port terminals and even the Corinthia Hotel) as a key target for their hit-and-run tactic aiming to bleed out both national political blocks. In this context, even the achievement of an effective peace agreement between the Tripoli and Tobruk blocks could not guarantee enough security and stability to re-vamp the Libyan ports sector in the short to medium term. Lastly, despite the quick resolution of the ‘al-Sunki crisis’, it is safe to assume that functioning ports in eastern Libya (e.g. Marsa Brega, Tubruq Hariga) remain vulnerable to disruptive actions undertaken by local stakeholders and federalist forces, especially as long as UN-backed negotiations and a process of national political rapprochement are ongoing, thus further weakening the financial position of the country.
Overall, and regardless of the controversies raised by al-Sunki and other HoR members over the validity of the dismissal of the Minister by PM Thinni, looking back at last week’s events in Tobruk, it seems fair to say that Federalist actors have now made it fully clear that they will not allow the Tobruk government to give away their unique control over the oil crescent ports in any negotiations process. How will Thinni and negotiators on both sides find an acceptable way around this remains, unfortunately, to be seen.