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Tripoli has only one option - it must free us, says Jadhran

Ibrihim Jadhran's skills were once so valued by the Libyan government, he was granted a top post with the country's Petroleum Facilities Guard. Now, after ordering his troops to seize control of a swathe of Libya's vital oil-export ports, Tripoli sees him as the main threat to the country's stability. Wil Crisp meets the eastern Libya rebel in his Ajdabiya headquarters

The once-bustling oil terminal at Zueitina is calm and silent. Looking back at the vast port from the end of its kilometre-long breakwater, the only vessels in sight are two tugboats moored by the pier. There isn't an oil tanker to be seen.

When it's operating at full capacity, the oil terminal in eastern Libya can export 150,000 barrels a day (b/d). But since July, not a single drop has left its quays. Zueitina is one of six terminals shut down by armed men over recent months, crippling crude production in Libya, the country with Africa's largest proven oil reserves.

After the 2011 revolution which ousted Muammar Qadhafi, the swift recovery in Libyan oil production astounded many in the market. It led to hopes that Libya was on course to realise its significant economic potential. One of the men responsible for the surge in output was Ibrihim Jadhran, a 33-year-old former revolutionary who became a commander in Libya's Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG), a body set up after the civil war to protect the country's oil installations. He quickly earned a reputation as an effective leader.

But in July this year, Jadhran quickly went from being one of the PFG's best assets to its biggest problem when he ordered his men to seize control of the ports they were meant to protect.

Since then, blockades and protests at oil facilities have swept the country, driving Libyan production down from more than 1.4 million b/d to a low of less than 200,000 b/d.

The groups blockading Libya's oil infrastructure are a loose, rag-tag alliance of various fluctuating factions and militias demanding everything from new SUVs to better working conditions, trips abroad, and recognition for minorities in Libya's new constitution. Over recent weeks, some of these groups have made deals with the government. These agreements have helped restore Libyan oil production to around 700,000 b/d. But Jadhran and his closest allies still maintain control of Libya's most important oil infrastructure - and their demands will be harder for the government to accommodate.

As lawlessness grips the country, Jadhran has capitalised on the Libyan public's discontent with the central government, uniting some of Libya's most powerful tribes behind his Cyrenaica Political Office (CPO), a group calling for autonomy for Libya's oil-rich eastern region, Cyrenaica.

"We have already declared our independence financially," says Jadhran, sitting at the head of a 20-foot long boardroom table in his headquarters in the Libyan oil town of Ajdabiya.

"After being ignored and neglected by the current government, we need to be free to create our own administration and to be in charge of our own budgets. Autonomy is the only way to get our proper rights and cast off this oppression," he tells Petroleum Economist.

Eye on the future: Ibrihim Jadhran

Dressed in a shiny grey suit and sitting in front of a black and white Cyrenaican flag, Jadhran looks more like a politician than a revolutionary. Day by day the situation has become more embarrassing for Libya's government, which has repeatedly promised a quick resolution of the crisis. Senior government officials have travelled from Tripoli to Ajdabiya to negotiate with Jadhran, but every attempt to strike a deal so far has failed.

Jadhran, for his part, is dismissive of the government's moves. "There has been no proper discussion," he says. "They haven't treated our problems seriously."

An arrest warrant for Jadhran, issued by prime minister Ali Zeidan, is outstanding, but has so far proved impossible to enforce.

As self-declared president of the Cyrenaica Political Office, Jadhran has overseen the creation of a new army - the Cyrenaican Defence Force (CDF) - made up of militia fighters and military units nominally under central government control. On 2 October Najeeb Alhassi, a colonel from the government army, was named leader of the CDF - a move Libya watchers consider a significant blow to the central government's authority in the region.

As things stand, Jadhran's reach is broad and his group's activities are proving costly for the government. The Cyrenaica Political Office and its allies control the country's main ports: Sidra, Ras Lanuf, Zueitina, which are all located to the west of Benghazi, and Hariga, a port outside Tobruk, 400 km  from Ajdabiya.

Total oil exports from these ports is worth around $85m a day at current prices and Libya's government has said that Jadhran and his allies have already cost the government more than $5bn in lost revenue.

With an eye on this potential source of revenue Jadhran has vowed to use the ports and his new army to sell oil independently of the authorities in Tripoli, which has responded by saying it will "bomb from the air and the sea", any tankers that approach rebel-controlled ports.

The rebels, however, have shrugged off this threat. "We've got access to boats and we're ready to offer tankers military escorts to help protect them from government forces," says Jadhran.

The rebels' determination to sell oil - and the government's response - has alarmed some companies involved in the region.

On the ground: members of Jadhran's militia are confident they will prevail

"If the protesters try to sell the oil, it will almost certainly escalate the tensions and there is a good chance of violent clashes between the protestors and the military," says Richard Mallinson, chief policy analyst at Energy Aspects, a consultancy.

"Even one successful transaction would be highly symbolic regarding the weakness of the government."

Despite the Libyan government's claim that rebel oil sales will be illegal, some energy experts say they may well be acting within the law. They point to the assistance Qatar, the UK and the US gave revolutionaries during the 2011 uprising when they wanted to export crude independently of the Qadhafi regime.
"It's a grey area," says John Hamilton, director of Cross-border Information. "The precedent has been set and Libya hasn't yet got a constitution. If the rebels exploit this situation and create a strong regional government there is no reason why they shouldn't be able to sell oil successfully."

Tribal relationships underpin society in eastern Libyan. And in an atmosphere of shifting allegiances and rivalries, it is difficult to accurately gauge how well the CPO is supported on the ground.

Jadhran says he commands more than 17,000 loyal men and more than 100 tribal leaders have signed a written pledge to support his organisation. But Jadhran's opponents in Tripoli dispute the significance of these pledges, claiming he is losing support. They further claim Libya's eastern tribes are divided over their support for the CPO.

"While a number of powerful leaders are with Jadhran many members of their tribes believe he is destabilising the country at the time when it is most vulnerable," says Brigadier Idris Bukhamada, the head of Libya's PFG.

Bukhamada believes Jadhran has exaggerated his military might, but he agrees with Jadhran's assessment of the prospect of military action. He says the government is in no position to use force to take back the ports:

"On a purely military level, of course the Ministry of Defence could easily defeat Jadhran's men, but politically the situation is very difficult," Bukhamada says. "If troops are sent in from the west, that would only help to further unite the tribes of the east against the government."

To solidify its local support, the CPO has taken advantage of widespread distrust in the Muslim Brotherhood, which Jadhran claims is staging a 'coup by stealth' in Tripoli, putting allies into key positions and funnelling money to favoured militias. Jadhran has also managed to tap public anger at Zeidan's government over allegations his administration is ignoring the east and failing to invest in its decrepit infrastructure.

In Ajdabiya's cafes, support for Jadhran is unanimous and many express anger over lack of investment in the east. The area has already struggled with decades of underinvestment. Qadhafi deliberately neglected Cyrenaica, believing Libya's eastern residents were not loyal to his regime.

"If they don't give into our demands there's going to be a war, and it's going to be a war between two different nations," says Moussa Al Jazwy, a member of a federalist organisation affiliated with the CPO. "Any government forces that enter Cyrenaica to try to take back the ports will be agents of the Muslim Brotherhood and it will be our duty to resist them."

All quiet: a tank farm outside Zueitina

The continuing standoff, and the threat of violence, has already done significant damage to the country's oil sector, stalling much-needed repairs to several fields, and hurting the country's reputation as a reliable and stable place to do business.

While the government still claims the dispute can be resolved peacefully, many companies and analysts are doubtful. Security in the country's oil-rich regions has barely improved since the end of the civil war.

On 17 September, US supermajor ExxonMobil announced it was scaling back its activity in Libya, citing the growing instability. The announcement followed Shell's decision to walk away from Libya last year.

In July, Marathon Oil notified Libya's National Oil Corporation that it was considering selling its stake in Waha Oil Company, the country's largest foreign partnership in the energy sector.

Spain's Repsol and Italian player Eni have both stuck with Libya through hard times before, but the deteriorating business environment may give them cause to reconsider.

"I don't expect to see any of the oil majors announcing new investments until the political and security situation has dramatically improved, which currently looks a distant prospect," Energy Aspect's Mallinson says. "I think we could well see the protests at terminals dragging on for several more weeks, perhaps until the government offers more substantial concessions."

But the concessions Jadhran and his allies demand will be very difficult for the government to accept. With Libyan security forces still fractured and weak and public opinion of the government worsening on a daily basis, many believe a military resolution is impossible, leaving Zeidan with few options.

Despite the many obstacles and complexity of the political picture there is, though, one man who sees a way out of the standoff - Jadhran."The situation is simple because the government only has one option," he says. "It must grant us autonomy."

As this story went to press, armed men abducted prime minister Ali Zeidan from the Corinthian Hotel, in Tripoli, on 10 October. Early reports indicate Zeidan was held by former rebels in reprisal for the capture of a Libyan al-Qaeda suspect by US forces. Zeidan was later released, unharmed.

All photos supplied by Wil Crisp

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