As popular frustration with Libya’s interim government grew, the oil industry has become the target of violent attacks, strikes, and civil protests, as well as a vehicle of opposition for those with more specific political agendas. Local leaders, tribal groups, Islamists, and factional militias all appear to be working against the new government’s efforts to consolidate its power. It seems that workers in oilfields around the country are now guiding the course of national politics, and have in a sense become the new and powerful decision makers.
Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has threatened to use force against people who are attempting to decentralize government power by targeting pipelines, refineries and oil export terminals. But still a number of facilities have been disrupted. In November 2013, the Mellitah oil and gas complex, in the west of the country near the Tunisian border, was seized and closed down by members of the local Amazigh (Berber) minority, who were demanding acknowledgement of their ethnic identity (which they say the new regime continues to deny), extension of their political rights, and that their language be guaranteed by the constitution. In Tobruk, in the east of the country, federalists took over oilfields, attempting to stop production or take it under their own control. Here and elsewhere a range different anti-government factions are using closure of oilfields as a political weapon.
Oil is at the heart of Libya’s economy. If workers in the oilfields go on strike, the government has to take notice. But the people who take control of the oilfields frequently start to use the situation to their own advantage, pursuing ends that benefit them as individuals, or are of political worth to their own interest group, rather than to the country as a whole.
In my attempt to investigate these issues, I started my journey in Mellitah, a town west of Tripoli, near Tunisian border. The local people here are Amazigh (known to others as Berber). The Amazigh have inhabited the mountains and deserts of North Africa for centuries, pre-dating the Arab conquest of the area. They consider themselves the original Libyans, but were repressed and persecuted under Muammar Gaddafi, in his attempt to turn Libya into a homogenous Arabic society. The Amazigh language and script, which is distinct from Arabic, was banned—it could not be taught in schools, and even giving children Amazigh names, and singing traditional songs, was forbidden. I interviewed and photographed the people behind the Mellitah strike, which had started after other protests and attempts to get government attention had failed. The Amazigh strikers were demanding that their dialect be officially recognized as a language and included in Libya’s soon-to-be formed constitution. The pipeline was later reopened, when the government gave promises to discuss the issue with the Amazigh, and meet their demands.
In my interviews with the workers of the Dahra field in the Sahara, a further complication arose, in that large numbers of the workers there are non-Libyans, who find themselves trapped in post-revolutionary Libya, and without financial support if production stops.
I also visited the port city of Tobruk, in the east of the country, near the border with Egypt. Here, federalists—who want to see the country divided into different self-governing regions, and who accuse Prime Minister Zeidan’s government of incompetence and corruption—went on a strike that halted oil exports, because they said the government did not recognize their demands. This led to further strikes on other issues, such as salaries.
It seems that all across the country, different groups are using control over oil production— crucial to Libya’s economy—to exercise their own agendas. In the absence of effective government, it is these people who have become the nation’s decision makers.
This story was featured in World Press Photo.