No one paid much attention to the 21,000-tonne oil tanker Morning Glory as it churned back and forth along the north African coast earlier this month. Tankers are a common sight, carrying Libya’s oil exports around the world. But on 1 March it switched off its satellite transponder and vanished from world shipping maps.
Eight days later it appeared at Libya’s biggest oil port, Es Sider, blockaded since the summer by a rebel militia. Within a week its arrival would see a prime minister sacked and Libya on the brink of civil war.
Four hundred miles away in the capital Tripoli, prime minister Ali Zeidan, 63, a lawyer and former dissident based in Geneva, was alarmed. He had come to the job 15 months before with high expectations. Libya, freed with Nato help from the Muammar Gaddafi dictatorship, had everything going for it, with Africa’s largest oil reserves and only 6 million people to share the wealth.
Instead, he had endured a bruising ride. Forty years of brutal, idiosyncratic dictatorship had left the country on its knees. Schools, hospitals, roads, pensions, commerce, the courts and police needed an urgent overhaul and he lacked the trained civil servants to do it. Worse, he was at loggerheads with the Islamist-led Congress that appointed him. When a militia briefly kidnapped him for six hours in October, he emerged to accuse the Muslim Brotherhood, whose Justice and Construction party leads the Islamist coalition, of “undermining” him. Since then, Islamists and a growing body of allies had campaigned to sack him, blaming Zeidan for Libya’s woes. Worse still, the militias that had won the revolution were now fighting each other in a bewildering array of shifting alliances, deepening an economic malaise and scaring off foreign investors.
But the arrival of the Morning Glory was more serious still. Oil and gas account for 95% of government revenues, and most Libyans depend on the state for salaries or handouts. Since the summer, militias in the east and west of the country had blockaded oil ports and fields, demanding more oil cash for the regions and slashing energy production. That had been bad enough. The prospect of the eastern rebels actually selling the oil promised disaster. Normally taciturn and professorial, Zeidan threatened to attack the tanker and sink it if it tried to leave…. see more