Libya Edges Closer to Splitting in Two

The eastern and western halves of Libya look more and more like separate countries.

Libya edged closer to splitting up on Thursday when its supreme court decreed the dissolution of the internationally-recognized parliament in Tobruk in favor of a rival legislature in the old capital, Tripoli.

The court, which still sits in Tripoli, failed to explain the reasoning behind its ruling. It is unlikely to have much of a practical impact on the political situation in the country anyway. Three years after Arab and Western powers intervened in Libya’s civil war, no government has managed to effectively subdue the various militias and rebel groups that toppled veteran dictator Muammar Gaddafi in late 2011.

Lawmakers who were elected in June, when less than one in five Libyans turned out to vote, took refuge in Tobruk, near the Egyptian border, after a militia from the western city of Misrata, known as Libyan Dawn, wrested control of Tripoli from fighters who hailed from Zintan, a town further west. Whereas the latter were aligned with the anti-Islamist parties that dominated the newly-elected parliament, Libyan Dawn counts various Islamists among its ranks, although the group claims to advocate no particular ideology.

Nevertheless, the Misrata insurgents’ success enabled the General National Congress, which governed Libya in the wake of Gaddafi’s defeat, to resurrect itself. The Islamists were stronger in this legislature.

Opposing Libyan Dawn and groups that are patently Islamist is the private army of General Khalifa Belqasim Haftar. A colonel in Gaddafi’s army, Haftar fell out with the former strongman after his 1987 defeat in Libya’s war against Chad. He later moved to the United States where it is believed he was trained by the CIA. Haftar’s force, which contains elements of the former national army, largely controls the east of Libya, including the city of Benghazi where the revolt against Gaddafi began in 2011, and is supported by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates which are believed to have carried out airstrikes near Tripoli earlier this year.

Eastern Libya, which was known as Cyrenaica before the Italians united the country in the 1930s, was home to the Libyan monarchy until Gaddafi, a westerner, took power in 1969. Gaddafi favored economic development around the new capital, Tripoli, and largely neglected the east, even though it accounts for some 60 percent of Libya’s oil production and houses two key petroleum export facilities at Ra’s Lanuf and Zuwetina.

The warring sides all have an interest in maintaining oil production, one of the few pillars of the Libyan economy. The Economist reported last week that in spite of the fighting, output has risen: “Some 800,000 barrels flow per day, around half of the amount pumped in summer 2013, before protests and blockades across the oil belt drove production as low as 215,000 barrels per day.”