assessments

Aug 6, 2014 | 09:56 GMT

6 mins read

Instability and Infighting Will Keep Libya's Government Weak

Instability and Infighting Will Keep Libya's Government Weak
(MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images)
Summary

Libya's recently elected transitional legislative body, the House of Representatives, assumed control from the outgoing General National Congress on Aug. 4 in a ceremony in the eastern town of Tobruk. While some are already saying the new body is less Islamist than the General National Congress, the House's political leanings will not become evident until it forms a government — when internal political blocs become more transparent.

The House of Representatives will likely be a weak political body, following in the footsteps of the General National Congress. In the short to medium term, the formation of the new political body is unlikely to alleviate Libyan instability. It is also unlikely that the House of Representatives will have the necessary economic or military tools to bring regional militias and tribal groups back in line with government prerogatives. Finally, it is doubtful that the body will be able to bring oil production and exports back online in the near term.

The House of Representatives is supposed to be a 200-member body, as the General National Congress was. Because of instability and security concerns, however, only 188 seats were filled, with representation absent from Darnah, Kufra and Sabha in the east and south. Regional media outlets have quoted unnamed Libyan analysts as saying the new body's makeup is decidedly less Islamist than its predecessor. Similarly, claims were made that the General National Congress had less of an Islamist bent than recently elected governments in Tunisia and Egypt in 2012, though the Muslim Brotherhood and its political allies were able to garner significant support from the body's independent politicians after elections.

On paper, the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction party claimed only 17 of 200 seats in the congress; local calculations place about 30 Islamist-leaning or Brotherhood-affiliated representatives in the House of Representatives, with more than half of the 188 representatives still identifying as independents. The overall point remains that it is too soon to judge the strength of the Islamist political bloc within the House, and any other judgments about the body's political leanings are likewise premature. The first bellwether Stratfor will watch for is the internal voting to form a government and nominate a new prime minister. This will be the best early indicator of how blocs will form within the new government.

Libya's Urban and Rural Power Centers

Libya's Urban and Rural Power Centers

The House's Inherent Weakness

However, the House of Representatives will be a rather weak political body, inheriting the General National Congress' almost nonexistent enforcement capabilities. Representation in the House and the formation of political blocs currently matters only to the extent that it parallels militia and tribal interests. Defining ongoing conflicts in Tripoli and Benghazi along Islamist and anti-Islamist lines is simplistic, since there are broader tribal and regional competitions also in play. But if the Islamists are able to form another large political bloc within the House of Representatives, their opponents are more likely to continue resorting to violence around urban centers and strategic infrastructure installations because they likely will view the new political body as illegitimate. The overall low voter participation (18 percent) in the June 25 House of Representatives elections also reflects the uphill struggle the body will have in establishing its legitimacy and proving its effectiveness.

There could be a lull in fighting in the immediate term as tribes, militias and regional political councils attempt dialogue with the House, but the new government's limitations in enforcing agreements or preventing militia infighting will likely become apparent in coming weeks. There are rumors that the new body may outlaw militias or repeal the political isolation bill in response to regional and international pressure. This move would probably trigger fierce opposition — some of it violent — from across the spectrum of Libya's revolutionary groups, the Islamists and even some ethnic minorities. Even if it passed the law, however, Tripoli lacks the ability to disarm these groups on its own.

Oil Production Likely Unaffected

The new government is unlikely to improve oil production and exports at this time. With the election of the House, the negotiating body that was dealing with ethnic Tebu and Tuareg, and with federalist protesters such as Ibrahim Jadhran, has changed. These groups have kept large amounts of oil production offline for the better part of a year. Jadhran has indicated a willingness to start negotiations with the House, but if the new governing body grants any concessions to Jadhran and his federalist movement, it risks sparking new protests by the Petroleum Facilities Guard at Marsa el Brega, anti-federalist factions in western Libya and Islamists.

Unnamed sources within the National Oil Corp. claimed that agreements with protesters at the eastern oil fields of Gialo 59 and Bu Attifel were reached Aug. 3 and that another 180,000 barrels per day of eastern oil production could come back online. There has not been any confirmation that the protesters have left the area or that production has resumed, either by official government spokesmen or international oil companies, such as ENI, that operate in the area. Limited cargoes could be shipped from eastern terminals as intermittent production begins at various fields across the eastern Sirte basin, but this is not expected to be a permanent or large-scale process.

In the short term, security concerns will likely prevent foreign energy workers from re-entering the fields, which have largely remained offline since March 2013. The maintenance status and production capabilities remain unknown. Groups could allow production activities to begin again at the fields but block oil flows further along regional pipelines, as has happened with protests in the western fields of Sharara and El Feel. Oil from Gialo and Bu Attifel is exported at the As Sidra and Zueitina terminals, respectively, so the National Oil Corp.'s issuing new tenders for exports in the next week or so would be a benchmark for how production is continuing, if at all.

The government has also made little headway in implementing a deal demanded by the protesting Petroleum Facilities Guard at the Marsa el Brega terminal reached in July. The guards are demanding that Idris Bukhamada, cousin of the Benghazi special operations forces commander and ally of renegade retired Gen. Khalifa Hifter, be reinstated as commander. This is in opposition to Jadhran's demand that one of his loyalists command the guards, which led to the current standoff. If the House of Representatives does not reinstate Bukhamada in the next week — something we view as politically difficult given the risk of upsetting the tenuous deal struck with Jadhran — the Marsa el Brega oil terminal could go offline again in the next week or two.

The House was elected with the expectation of reaching several major political milestones. These include drafting and ratifying a constitution, electing a permanent representative government and resuming oil production and exports — all against a backdrop of rising violence and a need to disarm a wide spectrum of militias and tribal groups. The opportunities for delays and failures are ample here, and the House of Representatives has few tools to help it avoid sliding into the level of infighting and ineffectiveness that plagued its predecessor.

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