The battle for control of Libya threatened to break open its central bank on Thursday as fighters with one of the country’s two warring factions seized control of its Benghazi branch, risking an armed scramble for its gold reserves that could cripple the last functioning institution in the country.
The Central Bank of Libya is the great prize at the center of the escalating armed conflicts that have consumed the country since the overthrow of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi more than three years ago. It has also been the main shield preventing Libya’s descent into utter chaos and deprivation.
The central bank is the repository for Libya’s oil revenue and holds nearly $100 billion in foreign reserves. A desire for a share of that wealth has helped motivate the violent competition among an array of militias fighting for money and influence. They have carved the country into warring fiefs, destroyed its two largest airports, bombed and shelled civilian neighborhoods and burned down refineries and oil depots — driving the oil output that is the mainstay of Libya’s economy down to less than 250,000 barrels a day from as much as 1.7 million a day at its peak.
As a result, Libyans across the country endure electricity blackouts for hours a day, long lines for scarce fuel at gas stations, and shortages of cooking oil despite its vast energy resources.
But the central bank has sought to remain neutral and above the fray. It has continued to pay for fuel and food subsidies as well as the salaries of bureaucrats, doctors, teachers, local officials and millions of other public employees — often regardless of whether they showed up for work.
By financing the budgets of the Interior and Defense Ministries, the same bank has even provided salaries and supplies for thousands of fighters battling one another from all sides of the struggle. But its continued distribution of paychecks and subsidies has helped communities and families across the country stay afloat despite the collapse of most other economic activity, even maintaining a semblance of order.