The battle for federalism in Libya’s east

Federalists in the east voice their discontent as the country’s first elections in four decades approach.

Libya Elections

Benghazi, Libya – With Libya’s first election in more than four decades looming, a vocal group of people in the east of the country is far less enthusiastic about this democratic milestone than those in the west.

The July 7 vote for a General National Congress is supposed to create a new and just political system, but is being seen by many in the east as a continuation of discriminatory policies, that – they say – have marginalised their region for decades.

On Sunday, hundreds of protesters stormed the building of the High National Election Commission (HNEC) in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi, setting fire to offices and burning voting material.

The young men, some of them armed, were shouting pro-federalist slogans and chants against the National Transitional Council (NTC), demanding more autonomy for the eastern Cyrenaica region.

The incident was only the latest outburst of anger over what many in eastern Libya see as an unjust distribution of seats for the assembly that will be voted in during the elections.

The NTC has allotted representation in the 200-seat assembly according to population, allocating 100 seats for the western Tripolitania region, 60 for Cyrenaica and 40 for Fezzan in the south.

This allegedly unequal distribution has angered many Cyrenaicians, to the point that some local candidates in the upcoming elections have openly voiced their preference for what is seen as one of the most sensitive issues in the elections: the call for federalism.

Campaigning kicks off in Libya elections

But the anger and despair of the Cyrenaicians goes much deeper than just the issue of allocation of assembly seats.

During the 42 years of Muammar Gaddafi’s rule, Cyrenaica had been categorically left behind, as Gaddafi centralised his government in Tripoli and squeezed the eastern region of its vast oil reserves, preventing it from benefiting from the revenue.

As Libya’s second city, Benghazi, the capital of Cyrenaica, prides itself for instigating the revolution and getting rid of Gaddafi, some residents feel the rewards of their sacrifice are being hijacked by the interim leaders of the NTC.

They claim that recent NTC decrees dealing with budgets, job opportunities, education and other issues have favoured the west of the country, in line with the old policies of Gaddafi’s rule.

Cyrenaica Transitional Council

In protest against the power of Tripoli, Hussein El Awami, a 26-year-old Benghazi University graduate, co-created the Cyrenaica Transitional Council, which in March of this year announced the self-proclaimed independence of the eastern state of Cyrenaica.

“The western side of the country is in denial over who we are. We as Libyans are not one people. If you dig into our history you will find that we are merely a nation that consists of three different kinds of people from three totally different cultures, namely from Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan,” El Awami said.   

El Awami’s argument is supported by Libya scholar Ronald Bruce St John, who explains in his studies that the historical three-way geographic split of the country – each part separated by formidable land and sea barriers – has never made it obvious that modern-day Libya would, or should, form a political unity.

In his book Libya – From Colony to Revolution, St John writes: “Historically, Cyrenaica tended to look eastward toward the Mashriq or eastern Islamic world, while Tripolitania looked westward toward the Maghrib or western Islamic world.

“With southern Libya extending well into the Sahara Desert and sharing selected socioeconomic features with neighbouring African states, Fezzan naturally looked south to central and western Africa.”

Gaddafi’s predecessor, King Idris Sanussi of Libya, was originally only the ruler of Cyrenaica – but was invited by the British to also become the emir of the other Libyan regions, because of his support for the Allies during World War II.

Cyrenaica always remained a traditional Sanussi stronghold, even after Gaddafi overthrew the king in 1969. Many easterners claim that Gaddafi punished their region because of his fear of their lingering support for their former leader.

With the chaos of post-revolution nation-building, El Awami said that most people in Cyrenaica supported the idea of federalism, or at least a profound decentralisation of Tripoli’s power.

“After our declaration of independence, the NTC started a media war against federalism, and created the idea that federalism meant ‘division’ of the country. This is not what we are after… There is unity in a federal state.”

– Hussein El Awami, federalist activist

“After our declaration of independence, the NTC started a media war against federalism, and created the idea that federalism meant ‘division’ of the country. This is not what we are after,” El Awami said, adding: “There is unity in a federal state.”

Indeed, the call for federalism has set off alarm bells in Tripoli, with NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil warning that the interim government would use force to preserve national unity.

Tripoli rejects the idea of federalism with the argument that the partition of Libya could have far-reaching and highly negative consequences, possibly even armed conflict among the three geographical regions.

“Fear-mongering,” replied El Awami, adding that the country’s interim leaders do not want federalism because they fear that more power will end up in the hands of tribal leaders instead of political parties.

Decentralisation versus federalism

Faraj Abdel Aziz Najem, doctor of sociology and an independent candidate for the elections in the Benghazi constituency, said the federalists in the east were only a “vocal minority”.

Like many candidates from Benghazi, Najem is a strong proponent of decentralisation of Tripoli’s power, but rejects the idea of splitting the region from the rest of Libya.

Benghazi is what he called “the political compass of Libya”, explaining that his country would only be peaceful if his city were given a fair chance economically.

“Benghazi is Libya-minor, meaning that all kinds of Libyans are represented in this city,” he said. “Others in Libya expect Benghazi to take the lead, as it has done since World War I and recently during the revolution. Therefore, to make Benghazi rest, it should be economically viable, an economic hub.”

According to an old Greek legend, writes St John, people from Carthage in the western Tripolitania region and people from Cyrenaica in the east “agreed to set the border between their competing spheres of influence at the point where runners starting from either sides would meet”.

The tale goes that the runners met about halfway on the southern shore of the Gulf of Sirte, not far from the place where spontaneous demonstrations erupted when the NTC recently announced the allocation of seats in the new general assembly.

Forces belonging to the Cyrenaica Transitional Council set up roadblocks along the coastal highway connecting the east with the west, preventing military vehicles and much commercial traffic from passing.  

“This is where the border of our federal state should lie,” El Awami, familiar with the traditional story, argued. “When we get our rights, these roadblocks won’t be necessary anymore.”

Follow David Poort on Twitter: @davidpoort

Source: Al Jazeera