Your Move, Zeidan.

(For background, see my February 3 article for Foreign Policy, “Federalism and Libya’s Oil“.)

The big news out of Libya this morning is that Ibrahim Jadran–the renegade federalist and mastermind behind the country’s 8-month old oil crisis–has found a buyer. A North Korean tanker was reported to have entered the Gulf of Sidra on March 4. Jadran’s men control three terminals in the Gulf: Es-Sider, Ras Lanuf and Zuietina, with a combined export capacity of 600,000 b/d. The tanker approached Es-Sider earlier this week but docked this morning. It is highly unusual for North Korean tankers to enter the Mediterranean via the Suez Canal. The deal certainly proves Jadran is desperate to sell oil; no reputable company will do business with him.

A spokesman for the group told Reuters, “We started exporting oil. This is our first shipment.” Now it’s up to the besieged and broken government in Tripoli, led by Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, to act fast and make sure that ship never reaches its destination. Zeidan may be distracted by yet another no-confidence vote scheduled for tomorrow. He’s overcome previous attempts to remove him from office but dissatisfaction with him as at an all-time high. However risky, Jadran has given Zeidan the perfect opportunity to show the kind of leadership Libyans so desperately need right now.

Zeidan should start with the following:

1) Mobilize Libya’s modest navy. By world standards, Libya’s navy is nothing special. But on two previous occasions, forces loyal to the central government have mobilized small fleets carrying men with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades. Warning shots were good enough to turn away tankers last August and again in January. In those cases, the tankers were driven away while empty. Now, however, with the tanker loaded and presumably trying to exit the Gulf of Sidra soon, it may be wiser to keep the tanker bottled up near the port.

2) Zeidan needs to work the phones starting with Egypt. This is absolutely essential. The North Korean tanker entered through the Suez Canal and it will take the same route back. Zeidan could demand that the ship be denied access because it is carrying a stolen cargo. The Egyptians might even be convinced to let the ship enter and then have it redirected to a port before it can exit the 120-mile waterway.

Libyan-Egyptian relations have seen a rough patch lately due to border insecurity and the targeting of Egyptian citizens within Libya. But, by every indication, Zeidan’s relationship with Egyptian authorities is still in good shape. Egypt saw it’s first post-Morsi government quit early this month. That shouldn’t prevent Zeidan from appealing to decision-makers, like Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, or managers at the Suez Canal Authority who are ready to deny illicit shipments.

One NOC official told Reuters that the 250,000 barrel tanker is owned by a Saudi company, presumably a privately-owned one. If so, Zeidan can call on Riyadh to intervene, withdrawing whatever insurance the ship has or preventing any payment for Suez tolls.

3) Contact European allies and the U.S. to intercept the vessel if all else fails and direct it to a friendly port, perhaps in Europe. Libya’s navy is simply not equipped to pursue this North Korean tanker. If it escapes the Gulf of Sidra, a more sophisticated force will have to intervene. For all of Zeidan’s failures, he is well-respected by his international peers; he just met with foreign ministers from the EU, U.S. and Gulf Arab states in Rome on March 6 for the Friends of Libya conference. All have proclaimed their willingness to help however they can. The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Deborah Jones, has repeatedly warned separatist groups not to sell oil outside of official channels. She had this to say on Twitter when news of Jadran’s heist broke today:

Safira Deborah Tweet 3-8-2014

safiradeborah tweet 2

The loading of a tanker in Libya’s east is a game-changer. But Jadran hasn’t won yet. In fact, this could backfire badly, hurting his brand even more. No one knows where the ship will go after loading oil. But if it’s destined for North Korea, Jadran will have to face the fact that he’s doing business with a regime that is in many ways reminiscent of Qaddafi’s brutal, arbitrary rule. Jadran’s revolutionary credentials may be compromised as a result.

What’s more, Jadran has not once hinted at what he’ll spend the money on if he’s successful in selling oil for tens of millions of dollars. Roads? Highways? Hospitals? Schools? We just don’t know. What we do know is Jadran’s men haven’t been paid in six months or more. It’s not too cynical to assume that paying his small army with oil revenues is his first priority. How might that shape public opinion going forward? Can you be a man of the people after taking your cut off the top? Countless Arab leaders have done that for decades. But Libyans won’t stand for it–not after forty years under Qaddafi.

This stunt confirms how desperate Jadran has become. It also provides Prime Minister Zeidan a chance to shine.

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