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After Qadhafi, the new test is uniting Libya

The dictator's death ends the war in Libya. Can the NTC now govern with authority?

MUAMMAR Qadhafi believed that true democracy was found in the direct expression of the people’s will. On 20 October the Libyan people had their say. Brutal images of soldiers kicking the colonel’s bloodied body were broadcast around the world, confirming the death of the tyrant, possibly by execution. Libyans took to the streets of their cities to celebrate. Forty-two years of dictatorship has come to an end.

Qadhafi died in his birthplace, Sirte, which has also now fallen to forces loyal to Libya’s new government. Its liberation ends an eight-month war. Libyans have many reasons to rejoice. In defeating a well-armed and brutal dictator the revolutionaries defied the stiffest of odds. Now they must quickly unite around a government that will deliver the peace, too.

Many threats should dissolve with Qadhafi’s death.

Just a day before news of Sirte’s fall and the colonel’s capture, Mahmoud Jibril, the prime minister of the National Transitional Council (NTC), said he believed Qadhafi was trying to unite tribes in Libya’s desert to wage guerrilla war, a prospect that had analysts worrying about regional destabilisation. No longer.

A gunfight in mid-October in Tripoli’s Abu Salim neighbourhood after some locals raised the regime’s green flag prompted warnings that Qadhafi supporters still posed a threat in the capital. The dictator’s humiliating end should also wipe out the hopes of any remaining supporters.

And there are good signs of recovery. Libya is exporting oil again, production has reached more than 430,000 barrels a day (b/d) and this will ramp up even further in coming weeks. The Temporary Financial Mechanism (TFM), the fund set up to collect money for the rebellion against the Qadhafi regime, is being inundated with cash as assets frozen in foreign bank accounts at last find their way home.

Even before Qadhafi’s death, Tripoli's posh hotels were chock-full of businessmen queueing for their moment with Ali Tarhouni, the NTC’s finance minister. The cafes, markets and shops have been doing brisk trade. Each night a throng of smiling youths, AK-47s in hand, arrive in Martyrs’ Square – formerly Green Square – to spray bullets skyward in celebration.

For the past month, it has been the turn of rebels from Zintan, whose courage in the Western Mountains campaign helped turf the dictator and his army from Tripoli. Expect war-weary brigades back from Sirte in the capital next.

In Misrata, two hours and 30 checkpoints down the road from Tripoli, they at last have something to celebrate, too. Doctors in the hospital have been working flat out since the early days of the rebellion, treating countless wounded during the brutal March-to-May siege of the city and, in the past month, doing triage for soldiers of both sides in the battle for Sirte.

“We sleep in the hospital,” said Mustafa Omar, a 32-year-old radiologist who has been working as a surgeon. “We never know when more will be brought in. We can’t go home.”

The siege destroyed vast parts of Misrata. Its main thoroughfare, Tripoli Street, has become a symbol of the war’s brutality. Miles of apartment blocks, stores and other buildings along the road were blown apart. Qadhafi’s troops raped women and killed men. Libyans from outside Misrata can enter only with special permission, or in the company of foreign journalists, who also need a laissez-passer from authorities in Tripoli.

The town’s brigade has grown famous for its fierce pursuit of Qadhafi’s army since the siege was broken, earning a reputation for discipline and, occasionally, bloodlust. A town close to Sirte, Tawergha, which fought for Qadhafi, was ruthlessly attacked from Misrata. Loyalist soldiers captured in Sirte and held in a prison in Misrata told Petroleum Economist they had been beaten after they surrendered, and showed stab and gunshot wounds inflicted by their captors. (It is also true that anti-Qadhafi forces have frequently shown remarkable restraint in handling enemies who surrender.) The prisoners’ jailers in Misrata are now their protectors from more retribution. Why were Misrata’s soldiers so keen to continue fighting in Bani Walid and Sirte, asked Said Akhmed Said, a manager at a local fuel-pump supplier. “Because of revenge.” Until Qadhafi’s capture, Misrati men were aggrieved that they alone seemed to have the stomach to finish off the regime.

Resentment in Misrata

The entire country may now rejoice in Qadhafi’s demise, but festering resentment in Misrata is a problem for the NTC’s leaders and their hopes of forming a new government recognised in all parts of Libya. A movement that was united in war against the tyrant was coming unstuck as full liberation neared. Now that it has finally arrived, the glue could dissolve rapidly. Recognising the competing claims to victimhood and heroism coming from Misrata and other towns that bore the brunt of Qadhafi’s violence in the past seven months – Zliten, Zawiyah, Zintan, Benghazi – is proving tricky.

Technicians in critical industries, such as energy, may be getting on with the job, but Libya’s economic recovery will stall in a power vacuum.

Security is still dicey. And, analysts say, in the absence of authority from Tripoli, Islamists – better organised than secularists – will grow more influential.

Sirte and Bani Walid, newly emerged from under Qadhafi’s yoke, will also need help – and take up seats reserved for them on the council, despite having backed the regime. Regions further south, such as Ubari and Ghadames, are not under the full control of the new authorities, either. Big questions arise about the NTC’s executive committee, which is struggling to transcend the factionalism emerging from all of this. Jostling for position on the committee has grown intense.

Last month, Jibril told a news conference in Tripoli that a full cabinet would not be formed until all of Libya was free, when he would also step down as interim prime minister. He confirmed that again on 19 October, a day before Sirte’s fall and Qadhafi’s death. As Petroleum Economist went to press, it was unclear whether or when Jibril would resign. There were doubts, too, over who else from the NTC’s executive committee would step down, as well as who would replace them.

Jibril’s position has been under threat for months, and the bickering seems to have drained him. Some Libyans criticise him for being absent from the country for much of the Qadhafi era and again during the war – although supporters counter that as NTC foreign minister he did much to win international support for the uprising.

Complaints that he worked too closely with the regime abound, especially from Islamists persecuted by Qadhafi. He has some support on the street, but praise is faint. “After 42 years, it doesn't matter who it is, he will be better,” said one Tripoli resident.

Meanwhile, Misrata has proposed its own candidate, Abdul Rahman Swehli, to replace Jibril as prime minister. Mohamed Benrasali, a vocal member of the NTC and spokesman for Misrata’s rebels, told the New York Times that Jibril should “just vanish”, adding that his town would “never accept” the prime minister.

Some people on Misrata’s streets are just as upset. “He thinks we’re stupid,” said Nasreddin Rhouna, a post-graduate student just returned from the UK. “He came to visit us for just a couple of hours, to try to gain support.” Misrata’s leaders say other towns also support Swehli. Salem Joha, a military commander from Misrata, is thought to be in line for the NTC’s defence portfolio – an appointment that may soothe hurt feelings in the town. Joha earned praise from many Libyans recently when he scolded fellow Misrati men for their belligerent parochialism.

A confusing situation

It is a confusing situation and it’s made worse by basic misunderstandings in foreign media about the post-war process proposed by the NTC. The pledge to stand down from members of the council’s executive committee – Jibril, chairman Mustafa Abdul Jalil and Tarhouni among them – mean they will not stand in Libya’s first elections, which may now take place within eight months. If Tarhouni (who in the latest reshuffle retained authority over oil matters temporarily) also goes, it may leave a vacuum. Indeed, many other diaspora Libyans who returned to the country during the war, taking senior roles in revolution, also say their job is done. “Remember, this was a war without whisky or cigars,” said one senior revolutionary credited with helping stabilise the NTC’s finances. “I said I would go home as soon as Qadhafi was caught.”

To calm sentiments that could destabilise the council’s authority, Jibril and the NTC are starting to spend the money that is flowing into Libya. Anti-Qadhafi forces are now referred to as “NTC forces”, although fighters identify themselves as rebels (in English) or revolutionaries (thuwar in Arabic) and answer first to their factional leaders, secondly to the council. Their role now that the war is over is also unclear. One idea is that experienced revolutionary troops now take up jobs guarding oil installations, or policing the streets. A youthful population will, above all, expect jobs in the new Libya they helped liberate.

Meanwhile, with UN recognition under his belt, Jibril has been spending more time in Libya. Other NTC members have been taking the council’s message through far-flung parts of the country. Tarhouni, who has a knack of popping up in freshly liberated towns, was in Sebha in early October to represent the council. Mustafa El Huni, an NTC official with some authority in oil, was in Jufrah region to do the same.

Doctors from Zliten, oil workers in Zawiyah, teachers in Benghazi and others across Libya who went months without pay cheques are now being paid again, too, including back-pay for seven months without salaries. Even in Misrata, this is garnering some admiration for the council, if not for Jibril. “It’s improving,” said Atunisie Abdallah, a French teacher now receiving 750 dinars ($600) a month from the government. "They are helping us."

Awash with cash

The TFM, now inundated with money, is also showing the regions that a central authority can make a difference. With a slug of $400 million brought in from its growing bank account in Doha, Qatar, the fund has been paying for wounded soldiers to be flown to hospitals in Turkey, Jordan, Italy and Tunisia. It covers the cost of their treatment; helping to relieve over-worked medics in places such as Misrata, from where up to three flights have been departing daily. The end of the war will ease that need, but create others, especially in Sirte, where the destruction has been as severe as that in Misrata.

Mazin Ramadan, who runs the TFM, wants to establish a scheme of “regionalisation” that will disperse money across Libya’s towns. “No-one sitting in the Corinthia can decide there’s a local school in Ghadames that needs money,” he said, referring to the Tripoli hotel where the NTC holds court and a town deep in Libya’s south. “It will change how Libya is governed.”

Ramadan, an ally of Tarhouni (both men lived in Seattle before the war and remain close friends), hopes the NTC will approve the plan and turn it into a monthly disbursement. It may help win the hearts of people whose biggest beef with post-Qadhafi Libya is their dire financial plight.

Small-scale devolution may also pacify towns such as Misrata. But there is also the problem of Benghazi, where the revolution originated. The town was the seat of the NTC for most of the war – many members, including chairman Jalil, are still there – and locals want more power handed to a city that was long ignored by the Qadhafi regime.

Some worry that rivalry between Benghazi and Tripoli will spill over into the oil industry, undermining longer-term recovery plans. Henry Smith, a North Africa analyst at Control Risks, a security company, suggests that Tripoli-based NOC may struggle to rein in the ambitions of its subsidiary, Arabian Gulf Oil (Agoco), whose headquarters are in Benghazi. There has even been talk of moving NOC to Benghazi, under the spurious justification that the city is closer to Libya’s oilfields. (Almost all of Libya’s major oilfields are many hours drive, or a flight, from both cities.) During the war, the NTC set up a shadow NOC in Benghazi, which may offer a clue about the council’s intentions.

Many of NOC’s Tripoli-based managers are accused in the east of being too close to the regime – a sentiment that has upset people in the capital. A source said that NOC employees locked out Omar Shakmak, the new deputy oil minister, last month when he arrived from Benghazi to visit the company in Tripoli. An argument is brewing.

Islamist fears

Another threat comes from Libya’s resurgent Islamists. It is not clear how much popular support they have in the new Libya, or whether they can turn their minority cause into genuine political influence. But brigades under the authority of Abdel Hakim Belhaj, the anti-Qadhafi forces’ de facto commander-in-chief and leader of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an opposition party during the Qadhafi era, control much of Tripoli, including Mitiga airport. According to one security analyst, Belhaj, who was arrested by the CIA in 2004 and later tortured in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison, has denied the US access to the landing strip. Islamists are said to dominate the capital’s ruling council, too, although there is scant evidence of support for them on the street, and even some of Belhaj’s soldiers disavow his political creed.

Belhaj and his ally Ali Sallabi, a prominent cleric and leader of the rebellion who spends much time on Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel, both want Jibril and his allies out of the way. Sallabi reckons the NTC is composed of “extreme secularists”. Both men played seminal roles in mobilising support for the rebels and, in Belhaj’s case, leading them into battle, including the storming of Qadhafi’s compound in Tripoli.

One unconfirmed rumour doing the rounds last month suggested Qatar had sent several planes laden with weapons to Belhaj. True or not, it has reinforced Libyan suspicions that the Gulf state is pushing an Islamist agenda on the country it helped liberate from Qadhafi. Well-funded and well-armed Islamists are far better organised than liberals in the NTC. “They hold all the cards,” said Control Risk’s Smith, following a visit to Tripoli. The US is particularly worried about the Islamist threat - and the wide availability of weapons in Libya, including thousands of heat-seeking hand-held anti-aircraft missiles. After a visit to Tripoli last month by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the US offered money to help with disarmament. Belhaj has come on board with this, too, instructing soldiers under his command to begin rounding up unregistered small arms in Tripoli, where locals say they are beginning to feel like invading armies have occupied their city.

With the war over and the frozen money thawing, outside interference in Libyan affairs, whether from Qatar or the West, won’t help the NTC establish popular legitimacy, either. Wisely, the NTC has repeatedly told foreign companies that existing contracts will be preserved and new ones agreed only by an elected government. Investment and re-construction are needed, but an unseemly scramble for deals while Libyans are still recovering from the trauma of an eight-month war is not.

A delicate period

So this is a delicate period for the NTC, and a tricky time for its foreign supporters. It must establish its authority soon, but must manage popular expectations, too. The days that follow Qadhafi’s death, as the council appoints a new interim government and plans for elections, carry risks. Tripolitanians may be weary of the provincial rebels and their celebratory gunfire, but the boys with guns aren’t going anywhere while the political free-for-all persists, or the threat of violence remains, even in the capital.

Some Qadhafi renegades fired a missile at Tripoli’s international airport last month, said a security source. Gunfights in the capital still occur on a nightly basis, said Hesham Belhaj, one of the men who captured Qadhafi’s Bab al Azizia compound and who is now helping to secure the city. If a senior politician such as Jalil, whose popularity transcends Libya’s factionalism, were assassinated the balance could collapse.

The as-yet unexplained killing – probably by Islamists – of the rebels’ general Abdul Fatah Younis in late July has been one factor behind changes in the NTC’s executive committee, and still causes friction. It is possible that solving the murder would cause even more.

Meanwhile, despite the rapid growth in oil production in recent weeks – Agoco says its output alone will hit 350,000 b/d in the coming days, and NOC says exports are nearing 400,000 b/d – the political paralysis will also hinder wider recovery of the economy. A massive rebuilding programme to fix demolished towns, roads and other infrastructure will draw in colossal sums of money. So will plans to lift oil production beyond the 1.6 million b/d Libya produced before the war. Shukri Ghanem, Qadhafi’s disgraced former oil minister, reckons up to $4 billion will be needed to restore oil production to pre-war levels. Much more will be needed to lift it further.

But under what rules will new contracts be signed and the income divvied up? One contract, a mysterious deal with the UK’s Heritage Oil, has already been signed (see article), but may amount to little.

The bigger foreign oil producers have flocked to Tripoli to talk projects, but aside from schedules for re-starting operations there is little to discuss.

“We need a government here,” said John Jenkins, the UK ambassador to Libya, in a briefing to UK journalists after a visit by Shell and BP to Tripoli. “This is a transitional government and they know there’s another stage needed,” said Lord Green, the UK’s minister of trade and industry.

Tarhouni has pledged that the NTC will “not just talk” about transparency in contracts, but act openly, too. Yet such promises from the NTC about the oil and construction industries – not to mention any promises about contracts – will mean little if the people who make them don't remain in the new government. Dark accusations against some oil officials are already flying around Tripoli - and corruption will undoubtedly flourish in a power vacuum.

It may not come to that. The rebels’ political process “stuttered along” for the past seven months and could do so for many more, said Smith. The anti-Qadhafi movement has already defied great odds to come this far. But navigating a way through the factionalism will be increasingly difficult for potential investors and other outsiders. Jibril’s departure will yield more jostling for influence in the executive committee. Sirte’s fall means the country is no longer physically and psychologically divided. But uniting the country in peacetime will take patience. “We waited 42 years,” said Omar, the doctor still treating injured men from the frontline. “It’s better to wait a bit more now.”

First in, Heritage Oil

Heritage Oil has bought a 51% stake in Benghazi-based services provider Sahara Oil Services Holdings for $19.5 million. Announcing the deal in October, Heritage described it as its "entrée into Libya".

The independent producer, listed in London and Toronto, has had a presence in eastern Libya since as early as April, according to correspondence shown to Petroleum Economist by a Libya source. The firm, with links to the private-security sector, sought a contract from the National Transitional Council (NTC) to provide security at oil installations and lobbied the UK’s foreign secretary for support.

Christian Sweeting, who said he was promoting Heritage’s interests in Libya, asked foreign secretary William Hague to help expedite UK visas for four contacts within the rebel movement, including Muhammed El Alagi, minister for the interior and justice. The men would visit the UK as guests of Heritage, Sweeting said.

The foreign office confirmed Hague and Sweeting had exchanged correspondence. But Hague’s dealings with Sweeting had been "entirely proper", it said. It is understood the foreign office refused the request to expedite the visas and that, although Sweeting provided on-the-ground intelligence to the foreign office, the ministry made no effort to support Heritage’s business interests in Libya.

Heritage is headed by chief executive Tony Buckingham, a former SAS officer.

Despite Sweeting’s efforts to garner support from the UK government, the NTC turned down Heritage’s pitch to provide a security force. The offer was "not acceptable", Nuri Berruien, the new chairman of Libya’s National Oil Company, told Petroleum Economist. Heritage was welcome to bid for other business, Berruien said, but oil security would be provided by Libyans.

A spokesman for Heritage said the company would not comment on its role in Libya. Sweeting did not return Petroleum Economist’s requests for comment.

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