Opposition to new Libyan PM may scupper oil port deal

Thu May 8, 2014 4:15pm EDT

Related Topics

* Appointment of premier fuels dissent in oil-rich east

* Rebels say businessman Maiteeq is illegitimate leader

* Struggle over ports part of wider turmoil in Libya

By Ulf Laessing and Ahmed Elumami

TRIPOLI, May 8 (Reuters) - A Libyan government deal to reopen major oil ports controlled by rebels looks likely to unravel as the appointment of a new Islamist-backed prime minister fuels distrust that is eroding support for the accord.

Ahmed Maiteeq, a hotel entrepreneur in his 40s little known abroad, took office on Sunday as Libya's third premier in just two months after a chaotic parliamentary vote. His government pledged on Thursday to uphold the deal on the ports.

The questionable voting procedure and a lack of broad support for Maiteeq - lawmakers took a month to pick him from seven candidates - highlight his weakness and will encourage Libya's fractured political groups to oppose him, analysts say.

This will complicate efforts to persuade the rebels holding two vital eastern ports to reopen them and makes it unlikely crude output will return to 1.4 million barrels per day seen before a wave of protests at oil facilities started last summer.

Separate protest groups without clear leadership are also blocking western oilfields and pipelines.

"Maiteeq is not as strong a consensus candidate as former prime minister Abdullah al-Thinni was," said Riccardo Fabiani, North Africa analyst at Eurasia, a political risk agency.

"Lacking Thinni's history of negotiations success, Maiteeq is unlikely to make any significant progress in the upcoming discussion round between the central authorities and the federalist rebels," Fabiani added.

The eastern rebels lost no time in rejecting Maiteeq as illegitimate, effectively suspending talks to reopen the Ras Lanuf and Es Sider terminals as agreed with Thinni's government last month. The premier later resigned.

LEGITIMACY

Libya has lacked a strong leader since the overthrow of veteran strongman Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 by a NATO-backed uprising of diverse rebel groups including Islamists such as the Muslim Brothers.

The oil port standoff exposes the inability of the new authorities to impose their authority, with a national army still in training and complex political rivalries undermining the government's attempts to build legitimacy.

Maiteeq comes from the western port city of Misrata, home to a vibrant business community. Formally independent, he has the support of the Muslim Brothers, who are strong in Misrata.

His appointment struck a raw nerve in the east, which has complained for decades of neglect under Gaddafi. The west boasts better roads and hospitals and thanks to relatively good security has also secured more foreign investment.

"We are totally against Maiteeq's appointment," said Osama al-Khadari, an activist in Benghazi, the main eastern city where many oppose the Muslim Brothers. "We plan to hold protests and urge (the rebels) not to open the oil ports."

A month ago, the rebels handed back to the government two ports, Hariga and Zueitina, which have resumed oil exports.

The larger Ras Lanuf and Es Sider terminals stay shut and rebel leaders accuse Tripoli of reneging on an agreement to put their fighters back onto a state oil protection force payroll.

Diplomats said some lawmakers were opposed to the port deal and parliament has not formally lifted its threat of a military offensive despite a government promise. That plan may be revived if the talks collapse.

"If (port rebel leader Ibrahim) Jathran will not reopen Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, there will be a disaster because these two ports have a major oil production," said Sulaiman Ghajam, a member of parliament's energy committee.

Maiteeq's perceived weakness has emboldened Jathran, an acclaimed rebel commander in the 2011 uprising, to press demands for more autonomy from Tripoli.

This week, he affirmed his support for a federalist state that shares power and wealth, as under Gaddafi's predecessor King Idris - a demand the weak central government cannot accept.

With parliamentary elections set for later this year Maiteeq's mandate is limited to just a few months, further dampening any hopes for an early breakthrough in the oil talks.

Maiteeq has tried to win over sceptics by stressing his business credentials and his non-party background.

Asma Sariba, a lawmaker from Beida in the east, said his stated aim of forming a broad government comprising all forces was a positive gesture, but she cautioned: "It is easy to say something but in fact Libya now needs serious action." (additional reporting by Ayman al-Warfalli in Benghazi; Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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