Politicians, militia commanders and tribal leaders unilaterally declared the eastern region of Libya, also known as Cyrenaica or Barqa in Arabic, ‘semi-autonomous’ on a unofficial conference in Benghazi on 5 March, which was attended by around 3,000 representatives from the region. The declaration demands an own elected government, yet leaving the responsibility for foreign policy, oil resources and the national army in the hands of the central government which is currently presiding in Tripoli, the capital of Libya in the western part of the country. Ahmed al-Zubair, Libya's longest serving political prisoner under Ghadafi and member of the National Transitional Council, was appointed as leader of the proposed government of Cyrenaica.
The east felt marginalized and discriminated for decades during the Ghadafi regime and still continues to feel deprived by the National Transitional Council (NTC) compared to the west. The leaders of oil-rich Cyrenaica now aim to revive the old system of Libya that used to be a federal union from 1951 to 1963, of which Cyrenaica was one of the three semi-autonomous states at the time. The region covers almost half the country on the eastern part. As the cradle of last year’s revolution that toppled Ghadafi, it set up the NTC originally established in Benghazi, the major city of the eastern part. This council later moved to Tripoli.
Various tribal leaders said they do not seek for separation, but favour administrative independence. Fadl-Allah Haroun, militia commander, said “we are not talking about changing the flag or national anthem. We are talking about different administration, a parliament and managing the financial affairs.” In addition, Tripoli would remain the country’s capital. Hoda Abdel Hamid, reporter for Al Jazeera, said “people were saying, that according to the 1951 constitution, which is now valid in Libya, there are two capitals: Tripoli as a political capital, and Benghazi as the economic capital. They want that status back. They also say we are so far away from Tripoli, a 12-hour drive really - and everything is centralised in Tripoli. For any kind of administrative papers, they have to go all the way and back.”
Nevertheless, the law for the elections scheduled for June that has been drafted recently was rejected at the conference. This law provided the east with 60 seats out of the 200-member assembly, whereas the west was provided with 102 seats. However, the west has in fact a larger population.
Reaction from the National Transitional Council
The president of the NTC Mustafa Abdul Jalil expressed severe concerns for increasing rivalry between militias in Libya and disintegration of the country. He deterred the tribal leaders and militia commanders with force to defend national unity and to prevent the alleged eastern secession, yet he favoured and encouraged dialogue with them. Furthermore, he accused Arab countries and infiltrators of the Ghadafi regime of supporting the split, although he refused to mention countries in particular. "Some Arab nations, unfortunately, have supported and encouraged this to happen,'' Jalil said. "These nations are funding this kind of unacceptable strife ... What happened today is the beginning of a conspiracy against Libya and Libyans." Al-Zubair rejected this accusation.
What the Libyan people in the east prefer, remains to be seen. Waheed Burshan, an NTC representative, said that the ordinary people want a unified Libya, whereas the tribal leaders are seeking for political power. “Well obviously, all Libyans have the right to express their opinion. But the fact is, for Libyans to consider such a split in the country and its governance, I think it is clearly not advisable. The Libyan people will not stand for it,” he noted. He expects demonstrations if the succession will truly be carried out.
So far, the NTC has not been able to establish its authority and gain national control, and this move of semi-independence symbolizes its weaknesses. The lack of political institutions in the country causes ongoing riots and battles between tribes, that are still possessing arms obtained during the revolution that resulted in the ouster of Ghadafi. The impact of this unilateral move is unpredictable.
Sources: Al Jazeera, CTV News, B 92
Image Flickr: by Nasser Nouri