La situazione in Libia sta diventando sempre più complessa e pericolosa per la nostra sicurezza nazionale. Soprattutto alla luce del ruolo crescente che il gruppo islamista ISIS sta acquisendo nel paese africano.
Riporto qui di seguito alcune parti di un buon “punto di situazione” appena pubblicato dall’IISS londinese nella collana Strategic Comment:
Libya has been in a state of civil war since July 2014. After three years of increasingly chaotic rivalry between militias following the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gadhafi, the warring groups have polarised into a conflict between the elected, internationally recognised government, now based in the eastern city of Tobruk, and an Islamist-led coalition in Tripoli. Fighting is taking place on several fronts stretching across the country. The militant group known as Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has a growing presence and is becoming a more potent factor in the conflict. Libya’s economy is moribund, oil production is falling and the country is being sustained by fast-diminishing foreign currency reserves.
Here, IISS Strategic Comments attempts to make sense of the politics, the conflict and the economics – and potential future scenarios.
Libya’s political climate is dominated by a wider phenomenon: the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring revolutions across North Africa, in which the Muslim Brotherhood tried but ultimately failed to establish itself in the governments of several countries. In Egypt, an elected Brotherhood government was deposed by the army in a popular coup in 2013, while in Tunisia the Brotherhood’s party lost power in elections in late 2014.
In Libya, the Brotherhood’s ideological appeal runs counter to tribal-based politics. However, the Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party (JCP) narrowly succeeded in establishing a ruling coalition in the General National Congress that was elected in 2012. But it failed to win broader support. Opponents claimed that its two key policies – to create a parallel army, the Libya Shield, and to purge senior Gadhafi-era officials from the administration (the so-called Isolation Law) – were attempts to institutionalise Islamist control of the state. In September 2013, a poll by American’s National Democratic Institute showed the JCP’s support at 14% of the electorate. Elections in June 2014 to a House of Representatives (HOR) to replace the congress produced a sharp defeat for the Islamists.
Muslim Brotherhood officials feared a backlash from the new parliament. They were anxious that both Libya Shield and the Isolation Law would be dismantled, and that they could suffer purges similar to those inflicted on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. To counter this, Libya Shield militias reformed into Libya Dawn, declaring themselves not Islamists but revolutionaries, dedicated to the original goals of the February 2011 revolution. Libya Dawn seized Tripoli, the capital, in six weeks of fighting. The battles left the national airport in ruins, and most embassies and foreign businesses evacuated their personnel.
Libya Dawn consists of both Islamist and tribal forces, including the most powerful cohesive military force, the militias based in the western coast city of Misrata. Although not Islamist, Misrata and other towns united with Libya Dawn in a re-opening of a historic division between coastal and interior tribes in western Libya.
There is minority support for Libya Dawn in Tripoli, mostly in the western district of Janzour and among the more prosperous eastern districts of Suq Juma and Tajourna. However, this may be eroding as Libya Dawn militias impose ever-stricter Islamisation on the city, with schools segregated by sex, beauty shops attacked, women obliged to wear headscarves, and attacks on statues and Sufi mosques considered idolatrous. Opponents have been cowed by mass arrests, kidnappings and the burning of more than 280 homes including those of senior government officials in exile in Tobruk.
Libya Dawn supported the re-forming of the former Congress, which claims authority after the Supreme Court ruled in November that the election law was invalid, and, by implication, that the HOR was illegal. The court ruling is not accepted in Tobruk, which claims the judges met under duress with Libya Dawn militias surrounding the courthouse.
The rump former Congress, which musters fewer than 30 members, re-appointed its former speaker Nuri Abu Sahmain, an ethnic Berber from western Libya, and announced Omar al-Hasi, a former Islamist guerrilla leader, as prime minister of a National Salvation Government.
The HOR, operating from a Tobruk hotel, is drawn from a multitude of groups in Libya’s factionalised political landscape. It includes the National Forces Alliance, a large, centre-right political grouping that constitutes the principal opposition to the Islamist JCP. (Popular support for both sides fell after they were blamed for corrupt and inept leadership in Congress.) The HOR also includes representatives from Tripoli, the western town of Zintan (home to the second-largest cohesive militia force), along with all but one of the major tribes in the southern province of Fezzan, all the major tribes in the eastern province of Cyrenaica, some liberals and Cyrenaica separatists. The HOR has a three-strong presidency, one member drawn from each of the three provinces, and a government led by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni, a former defence minister. Opposition to Libya Dawn is the main factor uniting these disparate groups.
The United Nations supervised and approved the 2014 elections, and subsequently UN member states recognised the HOR as the sovereign government.
Parliament (the HOR) began the war with Libya’s three principal cities outside its control. Tripoli and Misrata continued to be held by Libya Dawn and Benghazi was dominated by Ansar al-Sharia, the extremist group blamed by Washington for the killing of US ambassador Christopher Stevens in the city in 2012 and listed as a terrorist organisation by the UN in November 2014.
However, since the summer, the balance has changed, and government forces have achieved predominance. Parliament has benefited from several factors. First, it has the support of the bulk of Libya’s population. Second, by dint of international recognition it controls overseas assets. Third, it has acquired a slowly expanding air force supplied by Egypt, its main foreign backer. This may prove the decisive factor in the war, offering the government the means to strike Libya Dawn targets with impunity.
Air strikes have pushed Ansar al-Sharia back into small pockets in Benghazi. Meanwhile, Libya Dawn’s offensives against oil ports and in the east have been blunted. Tripoli and Misrata airports have been bombed, and a Greek-owned oil tanker, Araevo, was struck. The air force claimed the tanker was supplying an ISIS-controlled town. Air power is also the means by which the government is tightening a sea and air blockade of Libya Dawn cities, with threats to strike aircraft or ships arriving without government authority.
The government’s stated policy is to complete the capture of Benghazi and drive west to capture Sirte, effectively freeing the east and two-thirds of the oil industry from the threat of Libya Dawn attack. Al-Thinni has set several deadlines for the capture of Tripoli, but all have been missed.
ISIS has become the third front in Libya’s civil war. It controls the eastern city of Derna, which it has proclaimed as an emirate, and has launched a series of attacks and car bombings across Libya. In January, a three-man suicide squad struck at Tripoli’s most prestigious hotel, the Corinthian, killing nine people, including a French pilot and an American security contractor. The attack signalled an emerging struggle between ISIS and Libya Dawn. ISIS has gained support from fighters who have deserted from longer-established Islamist groups in Libya, including al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia. Numerous foreign fighters have moved to Libya to reinforce both ISIS and Ansar al-Sharia.
Oil and the economy
Behind the civil war is a struggle for the country’s oil resources. Libya has Africa’s largest oil reserves, at 48 billion barrels, and oil and gas account for 95% of government revenue. But as oil production slumps, foreign currency reserves are being used to meet government spending commitments. The World Bank estimates that at the present pace, those reserves will be exhausted in four years. However, the difficulty of liquefying overseas assets will likely see cash shortfalls emerging much sooner.
Parliament in Tobruk has control over most of eastern Libya, home to two-thirds of oil production, and legal title to oil revenues and overseas assets as the recognised government. It has sought to convert these advantages into practical reality, but is handicapped because the central bank and National Oil Corporation (NOC) have their headquarters and bureaucracies in Tripoli, where they are under the control of Libya Dawn.
In September, parliament sacked central bank governor Saddek Omar el-Kaber, replacing him with deputy governor Ali Hibri. In November, NOC chairman Mustafa Sanallah was replaced by Al-Mabrook Bou Seif. The government said el-Kaber was sacked for failing to attend two summonses to the parliament, while no official reason has been given for Sanallah’s replacement, which was announced in the lobby of a Vienna hotel on the eve of an OPEC summit that granted Tobruk official recognition. Both new appointees are trying to manage complex institutions with a tiny Tobruk-based staff. ‘We’re talking about a staff of two or three people with laptops, it’s not easy,’ said a London-based oil consultant.
Libya Dawn has meanwhile sought to take control of oil production. Under the terms of international recognition, Libya Dawn cannot sell the oil, but it wants to gain leverage by controlling the flow.
In November, Libya Dawn units captured the two principal southwestern oil fields, El Sharara and El Feel, which then halted production. In December, its forces in central Libya, allied with Ansar al-Sharia, attempted to capture Es Sider, Libya’s biggest oil port and Ras Lanuf, its biggest refinery. The attack was repulsed by local militias and air strikes, but a Libya Dawn speedboat attack triggered a fire that destroyed seven of Es Sider’s 18 storage tanks, wiping out 800,000 barrels of oil. The NOC closed both ports, declaring force majeure for each, a legal measure that protects a company from liability if it is unable to fulfil a contract for reasons beyond its control.
Oil production has slumped. A 12-month strike at eastern ports saw production fall from 1.55 million b/d in July 2013 to an average of 200,000 b/d. The strike ended in June 2014 and production climbed to 800,000 b/d before falling to 300,000 b/d in January. The collapse of world oil prices has added to Libya’s problems.
Libya’s population is reliant on income from the government. The World Bank estimates that one in four Libyans is on the state payroll, which has itself expanded by 250% since 2011.The central bank reported in December that it had used 25bn Libyan dinars (US$21bn) in foreign assets to help meet 2014 spending commitments of LYD47bn.
Foreign currency reserves fell from US$158bn in 2011 to below US$100bn in August 2014, according to the World Bank. Problems with liquidity have already begun: the Tobruk government says it is relying on a US$250m loan from a Libyan commercial bank to remain solvent. Bernardino Leon, the UN Special Representative for Libya, warned in January that readily convertible foreign assets were running low. Opening peace talks in Geneva, he said: ‘Libya’s running out of time.’ He quoted the governor of the central bank as saying that financial and economic collapse may come in a matter of days or weeks.
The civil war has set back hopes among international companies for opportunities following Gadhafi’s removal. Even before the war, Libya offered a highly disadvantageous business climate, with Transparency International rating it one of the world’s most corrupt states. The legacy of 42 years of dictatorship was a weak and inefficient bureaucracy with inadequate rule of law. Nevertheless, Libya’s oil wealth and high purchasing power made it an attractive potential market for foreign firms. British law firm Clyde and Company reported in early 2014 a wide range of clients seeking advice on the Libya market, while noting few firms were yet ready to commit themselves.
Imports of cars and consumer goods accelerated, while housing shortages sparked interest among construction firms. Government agencies began hiring foreign consultants. However, most business stopped with the onset of war and most foreign firms evacuated Tripoli in the summer of 2014.
Oil exploration companies including BP, Shell and Marathon ceased work before summer 2014, citing security concerns. Since the civil war began, most foreign oil production companies have suspended operations and withdrawn staff, including France’s Total and Spain’s Repsol. Official travel warnings have left companies unable to obtain insurance for staff travelling to Libya. Italy’s ENI retains a presence, operating gas production flowing to Italy through Melittah in western Libya, while some Italian, Maltese and Turkish firms remain in the country. In December, the UK-based temporary power provider APR Energy suspended operations in Libya, citing security fears. The high risks have in effect closed Libya off as a business destination.
However, some oil-sector companies may return to eastern Libya if government forces succeed in securing Cyrenaica. Contracts are likely for much-needed work on repairing pipelines and pumping stations, replacement of pumps, port improvements and the overhaul of the southern electrical grid, with the government likely to try to boost production up to its OPEC ceiling.
Both sides in the conflict are unstable, making its outcome unpredictable. Within Libya Dawn, there are tensions and a possible split is opening between Islamist and non-Islamist militias. The grouping is handicapped by a horizontal command structure in which warlords hold the most significant power.
In Tobruk, while parliament at least has a structure that is absent from Libya Dawn, it faces a potential challenge from its own military. Army commander Khalifa Hiftar, who has served both as a Gadhafi-era general and an anti-Gadhafi rebel, may seek to take power, backed by his self-styled Military Council.
The recognised government is likely to increase its military superiority over Libya Dawn in the coming months, completing its capture of the east and probably making good its promise to capture Tripoli. The capital’s population is mostly hostile to Libya Dawn’s erratic rule, but would not welcome the destruction that a battle for the capital might entail. However, any government military victory is likely to remain incomplete. Non-Islamist militias with Libya Dawn, notably those from Misrata, would harbour simmering resentment that could lead to a protracted conflict. Western diplomats fear a government victory could, by destroying Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood, encourage its activists to join extremist groups.
The outside world faces unpalatable choices. Leon is pursuing a plan that calls for a ceasefire and a unity government to hold the country together until a new constitution being prepared by a commission elected in February 2014 is ready. Leon told the Financial Times in January that international peacekeepers would be needed, but there is little appetite among potential contributing nations, especially since ISIS is active in Libya.
Looming over all the scenarios is the prospect that Libya will run out of money. If this happens, the population will face even deeper dislocation and a humanitarian crisis.