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Oil-Rich Rebels Helped Depose Libya's Prime Minister

Ali Zeidan is gone – and chaos has taken his place.

Fighters loyal to Jathran at Zueitina, one of the occupied ports. Photos by Wil Crisp unless otherwise stated.

On Tuesday, Libyan rebels orchestrated the sailing of a tanker loaded with millions of dollars' worth of crude oil from the port of al-Sidra. It marked the end of an era for post-revolutionary Libya. Now, the country is entering a new period of uncertainty.

Rebel leader Ibrahim Jathran's victory over the incumbent government turned out to be a final humiliation for Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, who was ousted in a no-confidence vote later that day before fleeing to Germany.


His departure after 18 months as Prime Minister has been greeted with celebrations from rival political groups – and anxiety from the international community who fear a descent into widespread tribal fighting.

On Tuesday, the UN warned that Libya risked “embarking on a new trajectory of unprecedented violence”. North Africa risk analyst Geoff Porter warned that “coming insurgency, terrorism and violence" would "rent Libya asunder”.

Some of these fears have already been realised, with clashes taking place near the towns of Sirte and al-Sidra.

Former Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan (photo via Anadolu Agency)

While in office, Zeidan was criticised for failing to be a strong leader, failing to build a proper army and failing to push through a constitution. In private, foreign journalists would accuse him of lacking charisma and skill as an orator. Islamists would criticise him for pandering to Western governments and separatists from eastern Libya accused his government of both corruption and collaboration with Islamist militias.

His leadership style could be described as vague bumbling, punctuated with occasional moments of bold rhetoric and dark humour.

When asked by journalists whether Libya was a failing state, Zeidan's stock answer was that Libya could not be a failing state as Libya wasn't really a “state”.

Speaking in September to CNN he said, “We are trying to create a state, and we are not ashamed of that …. the outside world believes that Libya is failing, but Libya was destroyed by Gaddafi for 42 years and was destroyed by a full year of civil war.”


Though Zeidan was widely viewed as ineffective by the Libyan public, he wasn't obviously corrupt or power mad – something that set him apart from a number of possible replacements. He had a track record of opposing the Gaddafi regime that stretches back to 1981, when he helped to found the National Front For The Salvation of Libya, a militant organisation that produced anti-Gaddafi propaganda and organised a number of assassination attempts. And as Prime Minister he could never be accused of lacking tenacity.

Zeidan proved adept at navigating Libya's strange and dangerous political scene from the beginning of his time in office – successfully negotiating tribal disputes and putting together a cabinet where his predecessor, elected Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur, had failed.

Rebel leader Ibrahim Jathran

From the first few weeks of his term as Prime Minister, Zeidan faced calls to stand down – and as his term continued he survived ordeals that most Western political leaders would never imagine enduring, including machine gun attacks, armed sieges and a militia kidnapping.

His resilience frustrated his rivals, who said his tenacity was driven by his hunger for power – but Zeidan maintained that he had the country's best interests at heart.

In January he said he would be willing to step aside to appease his critics – but only if a viable replacement was found. Speaking in a live interview on Qatar-based television he described himself as a “struggler” and warned of the dangerous possibility of a power vacuum opening up if he was removed prematurely.


Since January, attempts by Islamist political parties to dislodge Zeidan have intensified – though there was no agreement on who should replace him. The last few months saw repeated attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice And Construction Party to organise a no-confidence vote but until Tuesday they failed to gain the 120 votes they needed in Libya's General National Congress (GNC).

Fighters loyal to Jathran at Zueitina, one of the occupied ports

Eventually, it was Zeidan's failure to maintain a grip on events in Libya's east that tipped the balance against him. His government has been engaged in a stand-off with Ibrahim Jathran's rebels since they seized control of some of Libya's biggest oil terminals last summer – demanding autonomy for the country's oil rich eastern region, Cyrenaica.

During the standoff, Zeidan twice managed to prevent renegade oil tankers from docking at the rebel-occupied ports. But on Tuesday Jathran's rebels managed to evade the Libyan navy and sail a loaded tanker from the occupied port of al-Sidra – dealing a final, authority-sapping blow to Zeidan's career as PM.

According to the head of the GNC Energy Committee, the tanker sailed during a period of bad weather – making it difficult for Libya's navy vessels to intercept it.

There are already signs that, amid the chaos of Libya's deteriorating security and daily attacks, Zeidan's presence provided a degree of stability – which is now gone. The most obvious of these signs is the fighting between Islamist militias from Misrata and Cyrenaican forces that are loyal to Jathran that erupted around the town of Sirte on Tuesday, in the wake of the tanker's sailing.

There could soon be worse to come, as the government attempts to crack down on Jathran's rebels. Speaking on Wednesday, the head of Libya's GNC gave Jathran just two weeks to end his occupation of the oil ports.

For Libya's Islamist parties and Ibrahim Jathran's rebels though, the turmoil of Zeidan's departure remains a golden opportunity.

Defence Minister Abdullah al-Thanni, who is known to be sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, has already been named as interim Prime Minister – and the successful tanker sailing could see the Cyrenaican rebels receive an injection of funds in the region of $40 million. Jathran has already said some of this money will be spent on bolstering his army.