Revolution continues in Egypt and Syria while the regime change in Libya has receded from the headlines. With its oil production, in contrast to the moribund ecomomies of Egypt and Syria, Libya is vital to the world economy.
Change of regime? A trademark Al Qaeda flag was seen flying over Benghazi’s courthouse last week
Flying proudly over the birthplace of Libya’s revolution, the flag of Al Qaeda
By SAM GREENHILL
Last updated at 11:24 PM on 2nd November 2011
The black flag of Al Qaeda was hoisted in Libya yesterday as Nato formally ended its military campaign.
The standard fluttered from the roof of the courthouse in Benghazi, where the country’s new rulers have imposed sharia law since seizing power.
Seen as the seat of the revolution, the judicial building was used by rebel forces to establish their provisional government and media centre.
The flag has been spotted on the courthouse several times, prompting denials from the National Transitional Council that it was responsible.
Complete with Arabic script declaring ‘there is no God but Allah’ and a full moon underneath, it was hoisted alongside the Libyan national flag.
Extremists have been seen on Benghazi’s streets at night, waving the Al Qaeda flag and shouting ‘Islamiya, Islamiya! No East, nor West, VICE reported.
The Al-Qaeda flag was seen above Benghazi’s courthouse just days after Libyan rebels imposed Sharia law on parts of the country (file picture)
Libya Interim Leader: No Place for Extremist Islam
Published November 12, 2011| Associated Press
TRIPOLI, Libya – Libya won’t turn into an extremist Islamic country, its interim leader assured the European Union’s top diplomat on Saturday, adding that the formation of a new government of experts is to be completed in the coming week.
Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, chairman of the National Transitional Council, caused a stir in the West last month when he said Islamic Shariah law would be the main source of legislation in the new Libya and that tenets violating it would be nullified.
At a news conference with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, he addressed those concerns. “We will not be an extremist Islamic country,” he said. “Our Islam is moderate.”
Other NTC members have said Abdul-Jalil had expressed his personal views on the role of Shariah law. They noted that a constitution, which would address the role of religion in Libya, will only be written next year.
As part of Libya’s transition to democracy, following the capture and killing of dictator Muammar Qaddafi last month, a new interim government will run the country until a national assembly is elected by June. The recently appointed prime minister, Abdurrahim el-Keib, is to present a list of names of ministers to the NTC in the coming week, Abdul-Jalil said Saturday.
Ministers would be chosen based on expertise, not tribal considerations, he said.
The NTC chief was evasive when asked about growing concerns about the uncontrolled ownership of weapons. Since the end of the eight-month civil war that toppled the Qaddafi regime, rival anti-Qaddafi militias have clashed repeatedly.
On Friday, a dispute between armed groups from the coastal city of Zawiya, some 30 miles west of Tripoli, and the nearby town of Warshefana left two people dead. The circumstances of the deaths remained unclear. It was the latest in a series of violent confrontations between militias jockeying for position.
El-Keib, the prime minister, has said he could not disarm fighters until he has prepared alternatives, including jobs and training. Abdul-Jalil seemed to affirm the slow approach Saturday, noting that 75 percent of those carrying weapons are unemployed. “We will provide real opportunities of employment. We will support them,” he said.
Ashton said she visited Tripoli to show her support for the post-Qaddafi Libya. “We hope to be here for many years as your partner,” she told Abdul-Jalil.
She said she would try to ensure that billions of dollars in Libyan assets abroad, frozen as part of international sanctions against the Qaddafi regime, will be released as quickly as possible. She said she would raise the issue when European foreign ministers meet on Monday.
The EU has so far given Libya 155 million euros in humanitarian support and is to help in other fields, including building state institutions and supporting the health sector, an EU statement said.
Libya looks cautiously toward elections
By Alice Fordham, Published: November 11
TRIPOLI, Libya — In an improvised office daubed with revolutionary slogans, part of an appropriated complex in Tripoli that once housed Moammar Gaddafi’s cronies, rebel commander Muhammad Zintani contemplated his future.
“I am thinking of forming a political party,” he said, still in his uniform and sporting a bushy beard grown on the battlefield. “Democracy and social justice is what it would stand for,” he added, insisting that he would give fair trials to loyalists of the regime that he fought to topple.
But outside, the youthful fighters he commands rip up Gaddafi’s green flag and fire rounds of heavy artillery, reminders that Libya’s new politicians are emerging from a chaotic and volatile situation.
The country’s interim leaders have called for parliamentary elections to be held by late June. Mahmoud Jibril, the prime minister when that timetable was set, has more recently said the process should be sped up to avoid a power vacuum. But others fear that even a June vote would not allow enough time to prepare for an election in a place that has not seen one in more than four decades.
There are no voter lists, no electoral districts, no rules about who can run for office. And in a country where all political activity was brutally suppressed, few people understand the concept of a political party.
Libya Tries to Build Army That Can March Straight and Defang Militias
Service members for Libya’s transitional government took part in a parade last week that was organized by Tripoli’s military council.
By CLIFFORD KRAUSS
Published: November 21, 2011
TRIPOLI, Libya — The marching can hardly be called crisp as the new Libyan National Army takes form in daily drills at an abandoned air force base here.
The soldiers do not yet march in step or even keep their formations straight. Some answer their cellphones when they should be taking orders. Some smoke in the middle of exercises. Others push and shove as personal disputes break out over one thing or another.
“You are not going to see a good, really good military,” Gen. Abdul Majid Fakih, an instructor at the military academy under Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi who later defected, said as he supervised the training. “We are just beginning to build.”
Libya has never had a truly professional national army — a cornerstone in the building of a modern state — one that was not the personal tool of a king or dictator and purposely kept weak and divided to avert coups. And the effort at building one by the struggling new interim government may be its most difficult and important task.
Only a respected army will be able to persuade or force the various competing and heavily armed militias around the country to disarm and join together under a unified leadership. The challenge was underscored over the weekend when a militia from the town of Zintan captured Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, Colonel Qaddafi’s son and onetime heir apparent, without any help from the army, and then refused to turn him over to the central government.
The army is trying to build respect by holding parades around the country, complete with parachute jumps and fly-bys by Soviet-era MIG fighter jets and Mi-8 helicopters. But even the officers of the new force say they face challenges in building national veneration around the military, as well as in breaking old habits of officer cronyism and allegiance to one strongman or another.
The new army, which numbers a few thousand and includes many soldiers who deserted Colonel Qaddafi’s military, needs barracks, uniforms, vehicles, boots, radios, even flashlights, officers say. Rather than having a central unified command, it is being formed by distinct committees in different cities, following the model of the diverse bunch of militias that fought the war against the dictatorship. And perhaps most troubling, the militias across the country are already refusing to take its orders.
In its first mission just over a week ago, the army sent 100 troops to Al Maya, a village just west of the capital, to separate two fighting militias and retake an old army base that is now a heap of bombed-out buildings and rusting tanks. Its success at negotiating a tentative settlement between the militias after four days of fighting that left at least 13 dead was lauded as a model for the building of a new army that can serve as a unifying force.
But one of the militias, from Zawiyah, has already broken its promise to keep its weapons at home, setting up a roadblock on the main road a couple of miles west of the army base as a sign of resistance. Armed with heavy machine guns atop pickup trucks, the militiamen say they are going nowhere. Meanwhile the army troops are staying at the base, putting a fresh coat of white paint on the outer walls and beginning to clean up the grounds.
“We can’t tell them to surrender their guns,” said Capt. Hakim el-Agouri, the local army commander in Al Maya. He shrugged. “There are people out there who won’t give up their weapons, and if that is the case, there won’t be stability in Libya.”
Diederik Vandewalle, an expert on Libya at Dartmouth College, said it would be difficult for the new army to fulfill “the first requirement of any modern state — to have a monopoly on violence.” He added, “One of the elements you need to instill in your soldiers is a sense of national identity, and that identity has to be on a national level. But the militias have an identity tied to their group or town.”
The army has already become one of several armed forces vying for power, both military and political. Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the army’s leader in Tripoli, told Prime Minister Abdel Rahim el-Keeb in a speech last week that he expected him to keep his promise to include former rebels in cabinet posts as Mr. Keeb was forming his government.
In an interview, Mr. Belhaj, an Islamist who fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan but is now critical of Al Qaeda, said the army would give the militia fighters “a choice to join the Ministry of Defense or police, or give up their weapons and return to civilian life.”
He said he was confident the army could accomplish that mission within a couple of months.
Libya struggles to create army out of militias
Libya sends troops to settle militias’ feud
Rami Al-Shaheibi, Associated Press
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Tripoli, Libya –
Hundreds of uniformed men described as members of a new Libyan army have been deployed for the first time to settle a bloody feud between rival militias, officials said Monday.
The soldiers, wearing beige camouflage uniforms and ID badges, were sent to serve as a buffer between gunmen from the city of Zawiya and the nearby tribal area of Warshefana.
Four days of fighting, the most sustained since the capture and killing of Moammar Khadafy last month, had claimed at least 13 lives. The violence raised questions about the ability of Libya’s interim leaders to restore order after eight months of civil war.
Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, a senior official in Libya’s National Transitional Council, said Monday that the feud has been settled. He said members of the national army took up positions between Zawiya and the Warshefana lands, a few miles apart, and both less than an hour’s drive west of the capital of Tripoli.
Rival Libyan militias clash near military base
Patrick Cockburn: This was always a civil war, and the victors are not merciful
The purge of Gaddafi supporters is made more dangerous by infighting between the militias
PATRICK COCKBURN THURSDAY 24 NOVEMBER 2011
The detention of 7,000 people in prisons and camps by the anti-Gaddafi forces is not surprising. The conflict in Libya was always much more of a civil war between Libyans than foreign governments pretended or the foreign media reported.
The winning anti-Gaddafi militia are not proving merciful. Often they have had relatives killed in the fighting or imprisoned by the old regime who they want to avenge. Sometimes they come from tribes and towns traditionally hostile to neighbouring tribes and towns. Gaddafi supporters are being hunted down. According to one person in Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte, they are facing a “continuing reign of terror”.
“There is a deep and spreading frenzy, particularly among some of the youth militia and the Islamists, to hunt down anyone associated with the former regime,” the source said.
The National Transitional Council, whose control is largely theoretical, is not in a position to stop this purge because many of its members are themselves frightened of being accused of links with the old regime.
Some groups are particularly vulnerable. The then-rebels were convinced earlier this year that many of those they were fighting were mercenaries recruited in Central or West Africa. But when these alleged “mercenaries” were arrested in Tripoli, many turned out to be black migrant labourers without identity papers.
According to Amnesty International, some of those who were put on television by the rebels as mercenaries were later quietly freed because they were migrant workers. Others faced mob justice before they were able to prove their identities.
The international media was overwhelmingly hostile to Gaddafi’s regime and tended to highlight atrocities committed by it and disregard or underplay human rights violations carried out by his opponents. An example of this occurred when eight or nine bodies of Libyan soldiers were found who appeared to have been executed. The rebels claimed they had been shot by Gaddafi’s men because they tried to change sides. But Amnesty located a film of the soldiers being captured alive by the rebels and it was presumably the rebels who killed them.
The purge of Gaddafi supporters is made more dangerous by the infighting between the militias, and between them and the politicians. Association with the old regime can be used to discredit an opponent. There may also be self-interest since death squads are reported to be taking their property.
In Libya, Fighting May Outlast the Revolution
ByDAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
Published: November 1, 2011
TRIPOLI, Libya — Many of the local militia leaders who helped topple Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi are abandoning a pledge to give up their weapons and now say they intend to preserve their autonomy and influence political decisions as “guardians of the revolution.”
The issue of the militias is one of the most urgent facing Libya’s new provisional government, the Transitional National Council. Scores of freewheeling brigades of armed volunteers sprang up around the country and often reported to local military councils, which became de facto local governments in cities like Misurata and Zintan, as well as the capital, Tripoli.
The provisional government’s departing prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, suggested in a news conference Sunday night that instead of expecting the local militias to disband, the Transitional National Council should try to incorporate them by expanding to include their representatives.
“Nobody wants to give up arms now, and many tribes and cities are accumulating arms ‘just in case,’” said Mahmoud Shammam, a spokesman for the council’s executive board.
Noting reports of sporadic clashes between militias as well as vigilante revenge killings, many civilian leaders, along with some fighters, say the militias’ shift from merely dragging their feet about surrendering weapons to actively asserting a continuing political role poses a stark challenge to the council’s fragile authority.
“This could lead to a mess, to conflict between the councils,” said Ramadan Zarmoh, 63, a leader of the Misurata military council, who argued that the city’s militia should dissolve itself almost immediately after a new defense ministry is formed. “If we want to have democracy, we can’t have this.”
His view, however, appears to be in the minority. Many members of military councils insist that they need to stay armed until a new constitution is ratified because they do not trust the weak provisional government to steer Libya to democracy on its own.
“We are the ones who are holding the power there — the people with the force on the ground — and we are not going to give that up until we have a legitimate government that will emerge from free and fair elections,” said Anwar Fekini, a French-Libyan lawyer who is a leader of the armed groups in the western mountains and is also close to top leaders of the transitional council.
“We will make sure we are going to bring the country to a civil constitution and democratic system,” he added, “and we will use all available means — first of all our might on the ground.”
Militia leaders have already demonstrated their resolve to step into the political process. Before the provisional government named a new prime minister Monday night, local leaders in Misurata — speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid an open fight with the national council — threatened that if it failed to agree on a candidate they deemed satisfactory, local military councils from cities in western Libya might intercede to decide the question.
The choice for prime minister, Abdel Rahim el-Keeb, a Tripoli engineer and businessman, pleased the Western cities and resolved the matter peacefully. But officials of the national council say the threat of intervention itself undermines the transition to civilian democracy, in which disputes are settled with ballots or gavels, not with weapons.
Mr. Shammam said that armed intervention “would be a disaster” and that adopting a new constitution should happen “under the umbrella of the law — police stations, judges — rather than military councils and the force of arms.”
He and others in the national council say they hope that as their next transitional government takes over and begins to build a national army, a goal that has so far remained elusive, local military councils will begin to stand down. Referring to the promised election of a governing body this year, he added, “If the military councils start to extend and expand themselves, they will be a replacement for a national assembly.”
Libya after Gaddafi: new freedoms and songs of revolution bring same old fears
In his second dispatch from Tripoli, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad follows the victors of the country’s civil war and finds that the new militias are motivated by vengeance and rivalry in equal measure
guardian.co.uk, Monday 31 October 2011 14.48 EDT
Surrounded by his gunmen he took the two men to a nearby prefabricated cabin. “I know you both were soldiers for Gaddafi, hand your weapons and you are free to go,” he said. One agreed. He called his family to bring him a gun so he could hand it to Abu Baker and get released.
The other said he had no gun, though he admitted he was a conscripted soldier few years ago. He was handcuffed and pushed down on his knees, Abu Baker towering over him. A setting sun filled the room with warm orange light.
“My son, give me your weapon,” Abu Baker said.
“I don’t have one,” the young man replied.
Abu Baker slapped him hard on his cheek; the boy’s eyes filled with tears. “See what happens when you say no? Now stay here and think you have half an hour.”
I asked Abu Baker how he knew the fighters from the civilians. He said: “From their eyes: look at him, the white of his eyes is red, that’s because Gaddafi gave them pills to fight us.”
The boy’s eyes were crimson red as he lay on the floor, crying softly.
Libya: The Arab Spring may yet turn to chilly winter
We may not like the consequences of elections in North Africa – but we must not repeat the mistakes of the past.
By Peter Oborne
9:00PM BST 22 Oct 2011
The extra-judicial execution of Colonel Gaddafi has been greeted with international elation, and understandably so. There was very little to be said in favour of that gnarled torturer and war criminal. Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron, who masterminded the campaign against him, have some excuse to take the view that with the killing of Gaddafi, and today’s elections in Tunisia, the Arab Spring appears to be entering a hopeful stage.
But in truth, they have more reason to be fearful. Last week, I accompanied the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, on a tour of North Africa. The mood in Libya was understandably buoyant – yet it was another destination on our itinerary that provided a hideous warning about what might happen next.
This coming December marks the 20th anniversary of the Algerian Spring, when free elections seemed to bring an end to a long period of ugly dictatorship. Yet those elections did not lead to the liberal democratic nirvana envisaged by Cameron and Sarkozy today. On the contrary, they were followed by a decade of hideously barbaric civil war, in which more than 160,000 Algerians died and the most unspeakable atrocities were perpetrated by all sides in the conflict.
Even today, Algeria has not recovered. As a society, it is suffering from a kind of post-traumatic stress syndrome. The streets are empty at night – a legacy of the curfew imposed during the civil war years – the country is a police state and al-Qaeda has established its North African headquarters in the ungovernable south.
As the Arab Spring embarks on its next stage, it is essential to ask: what went wrong in Algeria? This question is all the more urgent because the similarities between what happened then and what is happening in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya today are alarmingly close.
Back in 1991, Algeria was suffering from mass unemployment, social discontent and riots in the streets. Eventually, the president, Chadli Bendjedid, felt obliged to call an election. What followed was a fantastically hopeful period for the country. Opposition parties mobilised and, after a lively and what is widely accepted to have been a free and fair election, the Islamic Salvation Front emerged victorious.
It was at this stage that the army intervened, strongly backed by France, the former colonial power, and the CIA. The generals declared a state of emergency, cancelled future elections, and curtailed free speech and the right to public assembly. The effects were utterly catastrophic.
We now face a wave of elections all across North Africa – today in Tunisia, next month in Egypt, and in eight months’ time in Libya. It is, of course, possible that these will be won by the secular liberal parties beloved of the West. But that is unlikely. In today’s vote in Tunisia, for example, the Islamic group Ennahda is set to emerge as the largest party. That outcome will be especially unwelcome for France, which continues to regard Tunisia as part of its sphere of influence more than 50 years after the country gained its theoretical independence.
In Egypt, meanwhile, a quiet military coup, tacitly supported by the United States, has put the brakes on the move to democracy. Elections that were originally meant to be held last month have been delayed: they are now planned for next month. At some point, however, they must happen – and when they do, there is no question that the Muslim Brotherhood will emerge as a dominant force. My guess is that, at some stage, a version of Islamic law is likely to be imposed across Egypt.
Let us now consider the case of Libya. It is impossible to predict the course of events now that Gaddafi has fallen, and there will be many powerful voices in the new transitional government that indeed reflect the secular, liberal views of Western democracy. But it is perfectly possible that Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the rebel commander who claims to have been tortured by the CIA in secret jails (allegedly with British complicity), will emerge as a powerful force. His and his supporters’ presence within the rebel movement is almost certainly the reason that al-Qaeda has failed to establish a presence in Tripoli over recent weeks – but his Islamist backers, or other, similar factions, may well form alliances that take Libya in a direction that is profoundly distasteful to Britain, France and the United States of America.
What should we do? The answer, I believe, is that we must leave well alone. At this delicate stage, it is essential to bear in mind that several competing narratives are available to explain the trajectory of the Arab Spring. The narrative most favoured in the West explains events in terms of the victory of freedom and democracy over a series of ugly autocratic regimes. This narrative is true as far as it goes – but it is sadly incomplete. Those autocratic regimes were, without exception, created or sponsored by the West. President Ben Ali in Tunisia, President Mubarak in Egypt, and even Colonel Gaddafi in Libya all had their connections to Western democracies. Their security forces were often trained by us; their torturers collaborated with us; and our corporations did very profitable business with them.
This is why there is a terrifying paradox at work this weekend. The Arab Spring has certainly been a victory of freedom and decency against barbarity and repression. But it has also been, in a very fundamental way, something completely different: a revolt against Western post-colonial domination. We have consistently preferred to ignore or forget this central point, but the revolutionary leaders in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are extremely conscious of this uncomfortable truth.
That is why it is so very important that this weekend, we reflect very carefully on the Algerian calamity. If we move once again to suppress national movements across North Africa, we will not simply risk plunging the region into chaos and brutal civil war, we may even achieve something even more dangerous and self-destructive: we may enfranchise and justify al-Qaeda.
Thus far, the Arab Spring has represented a total defeat for the ugly ideology of violent nihilism preached by bin Laden and his successors. That is because this year’s events have shown that change for the better can be achieved peacefully, through democratic means. If we step in now to block that democratic change – however unpalatable its consequences may be for us – the Arab Spring may turn almost overnight into a long and dark Arab winter.
What Libya has inherited from Moammar Gaddafi
By Anne Applebaum, Published: October 27
Young men in fatigues hang around outside the offices of the Transitional National Council, carrying rifles and flashing V (for victory) signs at visitors. Inside, older men in leather jackets sit on sofas drinking tea, while temporary officials cope with clashing appointments and race up and down the hallways. It’s just how one imagines the Smolny Institute, Lenin’s St. Petersburg headquarters, in 1917: amateur, enthusiastic, disorganized, rumor-filled and slightly paranoid, all at once. In Smolny, though, there were no ringing cellphones to add to the general cacophony.
And at least the Russian revolutionaries were operating within what had been a functioning society. By contrast, Libya’s late dictator, Moammar Gaddafi, has left an unprecedented, even weird, vacuum in his wake. Post-revolutionary Libya is truly a desert, not only in the geographic sense but in the political, economic, even psychological senses too.
Look, by contrast, at Libya’s post-revolutionary neighbors. Egypt has a sophisticated economy, a middle class, foreign investors and an enormous tourist industry, not to mention a long history of financial interactions with the rest of the world. Tunisia has a highly educated and articulate population, which has long been exposed to French media and political ideas. More than 90 percent of Tunisians voted in the country’s first free elections last weekend. Outside observers proclaimed the voting impeccably fair.
Libya, by contrast, has neither a sophisticated economy nor an articulate population, nor any political experience whatsoever. There were no political parties under Gaddafi, not even fake, government-controlled political parties. There were no media, nor even reliable information, to speak of. Libyan journalists were the most heavily controlled in the Arab world, hardly anyone has Internet access,and there is no tradition of investigative reporting.
During four decades in power, Gaddafi destroyed the army, the civil service and the educational system. The country produces nothing except oil, and none of the profits from that oil seem to have trickled down to anybody. Some 60 percent of the population works for the government, but they receive very low salaries — a few hundred dollars a month — in exchange. There is hardly any infrastructure, outside of a few roads. There is hardly any social life, since so many young people were too poor to marry. There wouldn’t be any public spaces to enjoy social life even if it existed: Trash is scattered along the undeveloped beaches, and old plastic bags blow back and forth across weed-clogged city parks.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and of course, in the absence of an army, militias may step into the breach: At the moment, some 27 of them, from cities all over Libya, have taken up residence in Tripoli compounds and spray-painted their names on the barricades. In the absence of regulatory bodies, newborn newspapers may well fall into the hands of business and political groups with foreign or old-regime connections too. When I met the deputy chairman of the TNC, Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, we discussed another “Russian” scenario: Newspapers start out enthusiastic and free, as they did in Moscow in the 1990s, but are gradually bought up by business conglomerates — until eventually they return to government control. The same fate could await new political parties.
And yet Libya’s unprecedented vacuum also offers unprecedented opportunities. One Libyan journalist — the editor of a brand-new magazine, which he has personally financed and staffed with volunteers — points out that none of his journalists ever learned to write regime propaganda, and all of them are therefore committed to telling “the truth.” The nonexistent economy and the absence of political institutions also means that there aren’t any entrenched interests that will set themselves against change, as they have done in Egypt. There aren’t even any well-organized Islamists, as there are in Tunisia.
On top of all that, Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa, and — depending on who is counting — some $250 billion in foreign currency reserves. Much of the money Gaddafi never spent on his people is now sitting in the bank. In fact, I can’t think of another group of revolutionaries, at any time in history, who found themselves in quite such a fortunate situation. Usually, revolutions are born out of national bankruptcy. The first task of a new regime is to fill the state’s coffers. The second task is to tear down the institutions of the old regime. Libya’s task — how to spend its money wisely, and how to build new institutions from scratch — is both easier than anyone else’s and harder at the same time. And no, I’m not going to predict what will happen next.
oil tanks have been patched, the damaged backup generator is being repaired, and most important, the pipeline that feeds the giant oil refinery here has been reopened.
Oil production is quickly being restored in Zawiyah and around the country, in large part because both the Qaddafi regime and the former rebels, now the interim leaders of Libya, took pains to avoid permanently crippling the country’s most important industry during their six-month civil war.
“Qaddafi wanted to keep the refinery going because he needed the fuel, and the rebels wanted the refinery safe because it belongs to the Libyan people,” said Khaled Rashed, shift coordinator at the Zawiyah refinery’s control room.
Libya’s oil production remains at about 40 percent of the level that it was before the revolution began. But none of the country’s 40 critical oil and gas fields were seriously damaged in the war, according to Libyan officials and international oil experts. Now, most of the important oil ports and refineries, virtually idled by international sanctions and months of fighting, are ramping back up.
Officials boldly predict that by June, the country will once again be pumping 1.6 million barrels of oil a day, although independent experts say that is conceivable only if the country can avoid a relapse into violence.
The industry’s rapid pace of recovery is a beacon of hope at a time when the interim government is struggling to disarm militias, prevent competing tribes from fighting each other, and rebuild shattered cities.
Oil is the mother’s milk of Libya’s economy — before the war, it accounted for about one-quarter of the country’s economic output, 80 percent of government revenue and 95 percent of export earnings, according to United States government estimates.
“In a country like Libya, oil is everything,” said Paolo Scaroni, the chief executive of Eni, the Italian oil company that is by far the biggest foreign producer here. “At the end of the day, the government spends most of its time taking care of oil.”
Unless oil production returns to preconflict levels, the country’s economy and political stability will suffer. Conversely, if oil output increases substantially, Libya’s 6.6 million people could become quite wealthy — unlike those in poorer countries whose governments toppled during the Arab Spring. Egypt’s economy, for example, has stagnated since the collapse of the Mubarak regime.
Corruption remains a risk. Members of the new Libyan government accuse Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of stealing billions of dollars in oil revenue. The acting oil minister, Ali Tarhouni, said authorities were investigating more than 20 bank accounts of the National Oil Company for fraud. “We will follow every penny,” he said.
With world oil prices near $100 a barrel, restoring Libyan oil production would also ease supply pressures on global markets.
Foreign oil experts caution that even to get production back over a million barrels a day, Libya’s interim leaders must end the violence that is deterring foreign oil companies from bringing back expatriate technicians. In a report last week, the International Energy Agency predicted that Libyan oil production would be only 1.2 million barrels a day by the end of 2012.
Last week, at least six people were killed in a firefight between two rival militias that occurred around Zawiyah. In the southwestern desert, where some of the largest oil fields are, there was a standoff recently between one militia and Tuareg tribesmen who raided a Qaddafi arms depot and stole some mortars.
Eni, Total of France and Repsol of Spain have begun to send in a trickle of staff, mostly to restart offshore Mediterranean fields far from any violence. BP, which had planned promising exploration projects, has so far declined to send anyone back.
Over all, only about 20 of the 2,000 foreign oil workers who provided critical technical functions for exploration and production before the war have returned, according to officials at the National Oil Company, which partners with foreign companies.
Jean-Daniel Blasco, Total’s vice president for North Africa exploration and production, said a return of his workers “will depend on the security situation, and there could be political events. This is a question mark.”
Foreign technicians are critical to restart some of the older oil fields that were abruptly shut down. Older wells tend to fill with water or wax when left out of production for long periods, and they will need to be injected with nitrogen and steam — a tedious operation that requires experienced hands and scarce repair rigs.
However, the war left Libya’s oil fields and facilities in far better shape than past and current revolutions in Iran, Iraq and Yemen.
The most serious damage to the fields was when a NATO bomb aimed at Qaddafi forces destroyed a transformer in the eastern Messla field. Repairs are under way and production is back to nearly 70 percent. The As Sidrah oil port facility has been hobbled by a destroyed metering system, but workers are getting around the problem by estimating the amount of oil in tanks and tankers before or after they are filled. Gas compressors at the refinery in Brega were damaged in the fighting, but other refineries are taking up the slack.
There was no damage at the Zawiyah refinery, aside from the destruction of a tugboat full of escaping Qaddafi troops. The rebels, rather than blow up an important pipeline between two giant oil fields and the refinery, soldered two valves closed and then stationed guards there to make sure no one would open them until the war was over.
“Everything can be fixed because there is not much to be fixed,” said Mr. Rashed of the Zawiyah refinery. “I think it is a miracle from God that our oil industry was not severely damaged.”
Abulgassen Shengheer, the National Oil Company’s general manager for exploration and production, said Libyan employees of Halliburton, Baker Hughes and other foreign companies were able to do the bulk of needed repairs so far.
Workers are making do without air-conditioning in the desert and jury-rigging control rooms as best they can under armed protection from militias. Foreign oil companies are pitching in by helping Libya acquire new trucks, computers and spare parts, and Mr. Shengheer predicted that large numbers of foreign workers would be back by early next year.
“I can’t say we can do everything,” he acknowledged. “Some expatriates must be here.”
Foreign oil giants, including the American companies Marathon and Hess, certainly want to be in Libya, and the jockeying has already begun for the chance to drill new fields on profitable terms.
Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton all went to Tripoli soon after its liberation to meet with leaders of the interim government, and foreign oil company executives hope that the diplomatic overtures will help them win lucrative contracts in the future.
With proven reserves of 46.4 billion barrels — the largest in Africa — Libya is a great prize. But historically the country has been a disappointment for foreign oil companies. During his long rule, Colonel Qaddafi granted foreigners drilling rights on small patches of fields and made them sign agreements that gave the regime most of the profits and left them with most of the bills. Decades of Western sanctions also kept most companies away until 2006.
Now, a new era could be dawning for a country that 50 years ago produced three million barrels a day — roughly double the output of recent years — and that might return to such lofty levels with ample investment and new technologies to exploit old and still-to-be-discovered fields deep in the Sahara.
Mr. Tarhouni, the acting oil minister, said the current government’s priority was to restart production, and it would leave any renegotiation of existing oil contracts or issuance of new ones for a future elected government. “I don’t anticipate that the interim government will make any major decisions,” he said.
Mr. Scaroni, the Eni chief executive, is already angling for more business. His company, which produced 280,000 barrels of oil and gas a day in Libya before the war, was by far the biggest foreign producer and counted Libya as an important source of profits in recent years.
Mr. Scaroni visited the rebel leadership in Benghazi last April, flying in via helicopter from an Italian warship, and has been shuttling in and out of Libya.
“The countries that have been involved in helping the new government in throwing out Qaddafi will have a strong relationship with the country,” he said. “Libya remains a country where we want to be, to stay, and we want to grow our production.”
Reality in Libya