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Libya Is a Failed State

A rebel mans an anti-aircraft gun in Ras Lanuf, Libya, on March 8, 2011. (Photo: Goran Tomasevic)

Last week gunmen seized Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan from a hotel in central Tripoli, releasing him shortly afterwards, but making it clear that post-Gaddafi Libya is a failed state and that the government is incapable of taking full control over its oilfields and export terminals.

While the markets have been responding lately with unfounded optimism over Libya, announcements of progress emanating from Tripoli are hot air. There are too many roving militias who want their piece of Libya's fossil fuels largesse—and the government is impotent. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the seizure of Zeidan from the Corinthia hotel in central Tripoli.

More to the point, the prime minister was apparently seized by militias linked to Libya's Interior and Defense ministries, which makes one ask whether he was kidnapped or arrested, or indeed whether it is even worth getting into the semantics.

His arrest was not about oil, specifically; it was in retaliation for the U.S. special forces capture of a Libyan al-Qaeda suspect in Tripoli the previous weekend. Militant groups—many of whom control various branches of the government—were angered at the U.S. capture of Abu Anas al-Libi, wanted for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in which more than 220 people were killed. Libya's National Congress, which was adamant that the United States return the captor, labeled the capture as a kidnapping and a violation of Libya's national sovereignty.

Upon his release, Prime Minister Zeidan took to the international media, calling on Western powers to step in—again. In an interview with BBC Newsnight, Zeidan said the country was being used as a base to export weapons across the Sahel and that "the movement of these weapons endangers neighboring countries, too, so there must be international cooperation to stop it."

Regardless, the situation should be clear even for those Libyan enthusiasts who are under the impression that this is a functioning state. Ali Zeidan's days are numbered without another direct Western intervention.

This is the same reason the oil cannot flow as planned. As noted in a September executive report on Libya in Oil & Energy Insider, the crisis began two years ago with the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, but in August things took a definitive turn for the worse, with armed groups seizing major oil export terminals and demanding autonomy for the eastern region. Now the crisis has reached the west, where other militant formations ominously charged with guarding the country's pipelines and oil fields are seeking to profit on the momentum of the strikers and protesters in the east.

The interim government cannot manage this crisis. It's already been forced to compromise, agreeing in September to a 20 percent wage hike across the board for civil servants, and including oil security forces in this mix. At the same time, the government has issued warrants for the arrest of strike organizers in the east.

While the government will not be able to enforce these warrants, the blowback for this will still be severe and will result in a violent upheaval unlike anything else in the past two years. This will reverberate throughout the already volatile Sahel region, threatening security in Tunisia and Algeria most immediately. It is also leading to a tightening of world oil supplies.

This article was originally published by Oilprice.com.

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