The last time Aamar al-Husseini rode into Ras Lanuf with his Kalashnikov on the back of a flatbed truck was to fight Muammar Gaddafi’s forces. This time he was there to shut down oil supplies, the country’s main source of revenue, in protest at what he sees as the betrayal of the revolution.
The closing of the terminals, followed by a blockade of the port of Sidra, was carried out by armed activists who feel that the first elections of Free Libya, being held tomorrow, will be an injustice to those who began the uprising in the east of the country.
“Federalists’, as the name suggests, want Libya to be a federal state with the regions exercising a large degree of autonomy. This would mean that the east, centred on Benghazi, would be in a powerful position with its oil riches. There is also resentment at the distribution of seats in the polls, with claims that this entrench power in Tripoli and the west. Furthermore, opposition to the voting also comes from Islamist factions, including the armed ‘Partisans of Sharia’, which holds that a Muslim nation does not need any other constitution than that decreed by the Koran.
The squeeze on fuel came a day after a depot in nearby Ajdabiya was set ablaze destroying election material including ballot papers, party and voters lists. Earlier in the week gunmen had attacked the offices of the national election commission in Benghazi and Tobruk, burning looted computers and election material out in the streets.
Disruption of oil supplies, however, has been the most serious economic threat in the confrontation with the $1.5 billion a month the country gets from exports funding almost every part of the budget.
The closure of the terminals was ordered by the Cyrenaica Autonomous Council, recently formed, using the ancient name for the region. Tumi Shakari, a supervisor at the Ras Lanuf terminal, said “The harbour is now closed, the pumping and loading of oil has stopped. This was done on the instructions of the federalists. They were quite amicable, we obeyed the instructions because we did not want to escalate things.”
Milad Mohammed Ali, the superintendent at a terminal at Al-Haruj, complained “What will these people do next? The Government must do something to control this.”
The National Transitional Council (NTC) in Tripoli has, instead, made a number of concessions have been offered to the federalists and the eastern region in the last few days. On Thursday it announced that Sharia will be the main basis of jurisprudence in the country without the issue being put to a referendum, as had been previously agreed. Changes were also announced to the drafting of the new constitution which would give a greater influence to the parties advocating autonomy.
This may not, however, be enough to placate those opposing the election. Ibrahim al-Jadhran, the leader of the protests at Ras Lanuf was adamant: “We want to continue with this until we get what we are demanding.” Amar al-Husseini returned to Benghazi with his Kalashnikov, dismissed the polling as “just some kind of game. The future of Libya was decided last year when we fought all the way along that road to Sirte and Tripoli. We did not lose so many friends to have another government which ignores the people.”