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Security unrest sparks protests in southern Libya, threatens oil output

The Libyan oil sector is once again threatened amid security and political turmoil, most recently with protests breaking out in the oil-rich southern region, which has been marginalized for years.
The National Oil Company is seen in the northern town of Ras Lanuf, Libya, June 3, 2020.

TUNIS, Tunisia — A fresh wave of protests has recently erupted in southern Libya, organized by the so-called Fezzan Anger Movement, which consists of a group of youth and tribesmen who claim an uprising is necessary to enable the residents of southern Libya near the troubled countries of Chad and Niger, to obtain their rights.

Fezzan is the historical name of the oil-rich southern region of Libya, stricken by marginalization that regularly triggers popular anger. In late 2018, protests driven by young people against the poor development state in the region led to the formation of the Fezzan Anger Movement.

The movement is, however, accused of being politicized in light of the ongoing divisions among the Libyan parties.

The fresh round of escalation between protesters in southern Libya with the central authorities follows a fuel tanker explosion Aug. 1 in the Bint Baya area of Sabha city, the capital of Fezzan province. The explosion, whose causes remain unknown, killed 22 people and injured dozens. The absence of hospitals in the south of the country to treat the wounded was widely condemned by the residents of the region, prompting popular protests that threatened to disrupt the country’s oil sector.

Bashir al-Sheikh, coordinator of the Fezzan Anger Movement, told Al-Monitor, “The movement shut down the country’s oil fields in the south. But its action could spill into other cities in Libya because everyone is suffering from crises, especially in the south of the country.”

Sheikh added, “First, we blocked the road leading to the El Sharara oil field, but our demands fell on deaf ears. This forced us to escalate. The fuel crisis and the absence of hospitals, infrastructure and other services have angered the people in southern Libya.”

Although protests gained momentum in a short period of time, the chances of their success in pressuring the central authorities remain thin. The new government formed by newcomer Prime Minister Fathi Bashagha has led to the emergence of two new parallel administrations.

The sitting prime minister of the Tripoli-based government, Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, has refused to step down and hand over the rule to Bashagha, who is supported by the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by eastern-based military commander Khalifa Hifter. This made Bashagha’s government a parallel de facto government, based today in the city of Sirte that links the east of the country to its west.

Immediately after the Bint Baya fuel tanker explosion, both Dbeibah and Bashagha tried to exploit the incident in their favor, instead of acting to solve the crisis in southern Libya, which is under the control of the LNA, which also controls the east of the country.

In an Aug. 11 speech on the occasion of the 82nd anniversary of the founding of the LNA, Hifter said the army is not the authority in charge of providing services to Libyans, but rather it is the government’s role.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Fatima Al-Suwaie, a member of the Tripoli-based parliament representing the south, warned, “The situation is likely to escalate, especially since young people in the south of the country are in a state of mounting anger amid the marginalization they have been suffering from for years.”

She called on the United Nations to intervene in southern Libya. “Angry youths may open fire on illegal trucks transporting fuel from southern Libya. The UN should intervene to avoid any new disaster,” she said.

This new wave of protests in southern Libya seem to have derailed international efforts to push the country to pump more energy supplies into the global market, especially oil. What makes the situation even worse is that the country’s state oil company that manages the energy sector is also being shaken by turmoil.

In mid-July, the Libyan government in Tripoli replaced Mustafa Sanalla as the chairman of the National Oil Corporation with Farhat bin Qadara. But Sanalla challenged the move, claiming the government’s mandate had expired, and he initially refused to hand over the chairmanship. This pushed Dbeibah to order a security raid into the company’s headquarters in Tripoli to force him to leave.

On Aug. 11, after he was installed at the National Oil Corporation, Bin Qadara, who is considered a supporter of the former regime of Moammar Gadhafi, made optimistic statements about ramping up Libya's oil outputs to 2 million barrels per day.

Several Western companies, including Italy’s Eni, heavily invest in the oil sector in Libya. In the past decades, the Libyan oil sector has suffered the repercussions of political conflicts. Most recently in April, protesters in the south and east of the country shut down oil fields and ports in the south in an attempt to pressure Dbeibah to hand over power to Bashagha, which did not happen.

Rachid Khechana, director of the Tunisia-based Al-Magharebi Center for Studies on Libya, told Al-Monitor, “Any disruption in Libya’s domestic affairs reflects on the oil sector, hindering opportunities to supply gas and oil to allies and customers in Europe."

He added, “Libya has the potential to become one of the main sources of global oil and gas supplies if its internal affairs are put on the right track and political stability is established. This sector has always borne the brunt of the country's political conflicts. If the National Oil Corporation operates independently and professionally, Libya and Algeria can meet 50% of Europe's gas needs. But, the continuation of protests in Libya, for example, prevents this and impedes attempts to raise outputs.”

Libya produces 1.2 million barrels of oil per day and is looking to raise its share of output in light of Western efforts to find alternatives to Russian gas supplies after its war on Ukraine. These efforts, however, seem to be blocked by political turmoil.

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