* Oil port dispute at stalemate, unlikely to explode
* Premier Zeidan under pressure after resignations
* Resumed crude output in west helps government
* If Zeidan survives as PM, Jathran may agree deal
By Patrick Markey and Ghaith Shennib
TRIPOLI, Jan 27 Almost every week, Prime
Minister Ali Zeidan either tries to cajole the fighters choking
off Libya's crude exports or threatens to break their blockade
Neither tactic has worked. Their leader, Ibrahim al-Jathran,
dug in at ports his men seized in August, says he will sell
Libya's oil himself and carve out a semi-state unless the
eastern region gets a fairer share of the revenues.
The mutiny, which has shut three ports accounting for around
half the OPEC member's exports, has helped send global crude
prices up and they could rise much further if any armed clash
inflicts long term damage.
But lawmakers, oil sources and diplomats say Zeidan and
Jathran are not on the brink of war, and that if the prime
minister can survive a political crisis in the capital he may
win the upper hand in the war of attrition over oil exports.
"There is no chance of Jathran exporting oil himself," said
John Hamilton at CBI energy consultancy. "He can continue the
blockade, inflicting damage on the government's credibility and
finances, which gives him a high profile. But his autonomous
government has no finances or credibility."
It is a fragile moment. Zeidan, from a small, liberal party,
has survived an attempted vote of no confidence in the Congress,
split between Islamists and his backers in the nationalist
party, National Forces Alliance.
But he was further pressured by the resignation last week of
at least four Islamist party cabinet ministers in protest over
his government. His only source of strength, for now, appears to
be the lack of a viable alternative premier.
Two years after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, the struggle
over exports is just one of the complex, inter-lacing disputes
among heavily-armed former rebels, militias and powerful tribes
emerging in the flux of post-revolt Libya.
Its constitution undrafted, parliament deadlocked, and its
army still in the works, Zeidan's government often finds itself
at the mercy of gun diplomacy.
The oil dispute is costing the government billions of
dollars in lost revenues and Jathran, still a symbol for many
federalists in the east, where the anti-Gaddafi rebellion began,
is holding his ground.
But Zeidan is waiting him out, trying to divide the rebel
ranks through tribal mediation in the hope that Jathran, whose
support among the federalists on the ground is fraying, runs out
of funds to keep his fighters on side.
"Everyone is looking for a face-saving way out of this,"
said one Libyan oil industry veteran.
ZEIDAN VS JATHRAN
With a long history of grievances under Gaddafi, federalists
from the eastern region they call by the pre-Gaddafi name
Cyrenaica want a fairer share of Libya's vast oil wealth, which
they say the central government is squandering.
Jathran, a hero from the anti-Gaddafi revolt, defected from
the state-run Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) with his troops
in August and seized Ras Lanuf, Es Sider and Zuetina ports,
which accounted for 600,000 barrels per day of exports.
Negotiations have gone nowhere. But an attempt earlier this
month to load a tanker at Es Sider port ended abruptly when the
navy opened fire. That made clear how difficult it would be for
Jathran to sell oil independently of Tripoli.
For now, Zeidan has the advantage, analysts say, after
restoring production in the west and restarting vital oil
revenues, with output now at around 600,000 bpd.
Eurasia Group analyst Riccardo Fabiani said the prime
minister may gain more leverage if he manages to reopen the
Marsa al Hariga port by negotiating separately with rebels
there, weakening Jathran's position.
Jathran claims he has 20,000 men backing his federalist
cause. But even if his force is closer to 2,000 troops, evicting
him by force would be complicated.
When clashes erupted this month on Libya's southern border,
Zeidan asked for support from the powerful western region
Misrata militia. But turning to militias to oust Jathran would
likely incite more violence and inflame federalist sentiment.
"Zeidan would have to turn to the militias," said one
diplomat. "That could lead to a major conflagration, so there
has to be a negotiated solution."
Jathran himself has been evasive about his financial
backing, but lawmakers and analysts say his political support
may be waning. Even some eastern tribes who support federalism
brand him a power-hungry warlord.
Federalist leaders say they are firm in three demands: an
independent committee to supervise oil exports, a probe into oil
corruption and a system to share oil revenue among the three
regions Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan in the south.
But Sadeq al Ghaithi, a former Islamist fighter who become a
leading member of the Cyrenaica movement, last year left the
political bureau after disputes over the Jathran leadership.
In a further sign of discontent, some former troops from the
Petroleum Facilities Guard, who defected with Jathran, have
protested to demand back pay of their government salaries.
Saad Bensharrada, a member of parliament's energy committee
who was involved in mediation to end to the standoff, said
Jathran appeared to be losing tribal support in the east.
"He changes his demands each month..what is happening now is
that he is becoming more isolated," he said. "But Zeidan lacks
the will to face the problem."
Jathran may be banking on pressure building on Zeidan after
the resignations of his cabinet ministers. The premier faces an
evolving crisis over the future of the congress, which has
extended its transitional term though to February.
In the latest turmoil in Tripoli, gunmen kidnapped five
Egyptian diplomats after Egypt arrested a top Libyan militia
commander. They were all freed shortly afterwards, though both
governments denied any deal. [ID nL5N0L115B]
But as weak as he may be, Zeidan may survive, with Islamists
and the National Forces Alliance deadlocked in parliament and no
clear candidate emerging to replace him.
One senior Cyrenaica movement activist said Jathran has only
two options now: the collapse of Zeidan's government or a
confrontation that shores up his backing.
"In this situation he cannot sell oil, if the government in
Tripoli collapses he can," the activist said. "If he cannot sell
the oil, the movement of Jathran will collapse because he needs
the money to pay his troops to support his operations."
(Editing by Philippa Fletcher)