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Rebel leader Ibrahim Jedran seeks separate government for eastern Libya

Strategy starts with seizure of oil fields

- - Monday, December 23, 2013

AJDABIYA, Libya — Ibrahim Jedran, the leader of eastern Libya's rebels, is exercising a three-part strategy to dominate this beleaguered North African nation.

First, surround Libya's oil fields, proving the rebels' military might. Next, flex some political muscle and proclaim an autonomous government. Finally, assure the viability of the breakaway province by creating a state oil company.

So far, so good. If all continues on target, Mr. Jedran's plan could spell the beginning of the end for Prime Minister Ali Zeidan's embattled government in Tripoli.

Mr. Jedran's rebel group has named itself the Council of Cyrenaica, after the Libyan state whose capital is Benghazi, the cradle of the 2011 revolution that overthrew longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi. As militias today control large swaths of the country, the council is profiting from the Zeidan government's inability to rule. This power vacuum has translated into multiple killings and assassinations in Benghazi, nearly all of which remain unpunished.

"Zeidan's government is infuriating. He is just not effective," said Salah al-Bakoush, a co-founder of the Union for the Homeland political party, based in the northwestern city of Misrata. "And that is easy for men like Ibrahim Jedran to take advantage of."

In October, militiamen kidnapped the prime minister and released him unharmed hours later. Last month, militias turned over their bases in the capital, Tripoli, to the military after residents protested militia infighting that left nearly 50 people dead and more than 500 wounded.

Mr. Jedran swung his rebels into action this summer with a series of worker strikes at oil refineries, which they surrounded and in some cases occupied. Their aim was to highlight corruption at the plant, he said, because federal functionaries there were siphoning off oil revenue.

A return to 'federalism'

These days, months after their protest began, Cyrenaica's rebels show no sign of leaving those oil fields. Talks this month with the federal government broke down after Tripoli refused to concede a share of oil revenue. Still, the central government has not moved to push the rebels off the oil fields.

That decision, analysts say, is costly. Oil generates about 90 percent of Libya's gross domestic product, and the strikes already have cost the government nearly $13 billion since the summer, official statistics show.

The strikes also have driven Mr. Jedran's rapid rise in Libya's political landscape. He has won a reputation as a man of action and integrity among certain sections in eastern Libya after having served as head of security at oil facilities in the region of Sirte, whose capital is Gadhafi's birthplace.

The rebels look to Mr. Jedran as the face of the movement to inspire the region. His contribution to the cause already? About 17,000 former security guards, analysts say.

Mr. Jedran, 33, says it's easy to explain why his group will succeed.

"Tripoli has fallen into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood but they have failed," he said, sitting at the four-star Amal Hotel in Ajdabiya, wearing an Italian suit with a rhinestone watch instead of his usual military fatigues. "Meanwhile, we have the support of 90 percent of the tribes in the East."

Rebel leaders say they are not seeking full independence for Cyrenaica. Instead, they want autonomy within Libya, said Abd-Rabbo al-Barasi, chief of the Council of Cyrenaica, when announcing the composition of his 24-member Cabinet in October.

Mr. al-Barasi noted that Libya's constitution, written shortly after independence in 1951, had the country divided into three federal states — including Cyrenaica, each with strong powers in relation to the federal government. The rebels want that system, known locally as "federalism," to return.

Weak central government

Under the Council's plans, Cyrenaica would become a powerful state and Benghazi would become Libya's capital. The federal government would retain executive, diplomatic, defensive and budgetary powers, and the rest of the governing powers would be given to the states.

For a revenue stream, the rebels are demanding the return of a 1950s law that earmarked 15 percent of crude oil revenue for the region where the petroleum is extracted — in this case, their new state.

Mr. al-Barasi, who calls himself the prime minister of Cyrenaica, has announced the creation of two resources companies, Libya Oil and Gas Corp. Both have been tasked with extracting petroleum in the region.

Many of these demands result from a sense of neglect and unfair treatment from Tripoli, the main cause of the rebellion in Benghazi two years ago that evolved into the Libyan revolution.

"The [Libyan] government hasn't done anything here. They haven't planted one flower," said Bushea Bushea, a professor at Derna University, east of Benghazi.

At the same time, Benghazi's push for power threatens Libya's financial viability as a nation, as more tribes seek to capture their cut of oil revenue.

In October, Col. Barca Wardougou, head of the Murzuk region in southern Libya, discreetly met with Mr. Zeidan to demand a more equitable geographic division of oil revenue.

Cyrenaica inspired Col. Wardougou's trip after Benghazi rebels made several trips to Murzuk to sell locals on the idea of federalism.

"If our demands aren't heeded by the government in Tripoli, then we'll proclaim a federal state," Col. Wardougou said he told the prime minister.

Defending states' rights

In spite of their gains, Mr. Jedran's rebels have problems of their own.

First, there are divisions among the rebels. Second, the campaign has attracted extremists, partially because of its leader's pedigree: At the start of the revolution, Mr. Jedran was part of the Libyan Islamic Fighter Group led by Abdelhakim Belhaj.

Mr. Jedran's critics say his movement also is supported by former Defense Minister Saddiq al-Gheiti, an ex-jihadist who is suspected of embezzling $150 million from public coffers to fund the strikes against oil refineries.

The extremists "seek to occupy strategic roles inside the movement while remaining in the shadows," said one member of the council.

Mr. Jedran denies that his movement is full of religious extremists. If there are Islamists among his followers, he said, they are there to "defend states' rights," not to assume control of the movement.

Meanwhile, Cyrenaica's rebel oil companies, Libya Oil and Gas Corp., are likely to be unable to sell much oil they drill on the seized fields, analysts say.

"Who will risk buying stolen petrol?" said Ahmed Abdusalem, a spokesman for the Economics Ministry. "At best, they will sell one or two tankers. That's it."

Still, some in the states' rights movement say the oil field seizures and the breakaway petroleum companies are the start of something bigger — the breakup of Libya.

"All of those [actions] have been necessary steps," said Oussama Buera, a member of Cyrenaica's policy-making arm.

"The goal is to create an entirely new country, Barqa," he said, referring to Cyrenaica's name under the Arab Caliphs from the seventh century until the 15th century.

Libya's tribal diversity, coupled with Tripoli's neglect of security and governance in Benghazi and elsewhere, could be a fatal mixture for Libyan unity, analysts say, and the regions know it.

"For residents in Cyrenaica, nothing good can come from Tripoli," said Patrick Haimzadeh, an erstwhile French diplomat in Libya. "So it is up to Cyrenaica to take its fate into its own hands."