Tripoli, Libya – Jaber Mejbari spent 45 days on a hunger strike in 2012, in protest against what he called “the unjust distribution of seats” for Libya’s Barqa region in the country’s National Congress. Two years later, Mejbari says his protest did not accomplish much.
“We in the east are under occupation and have been since 1949. We need total independence for Barqa,” the 32-year-old, who says he is not affiliated to any political party, told Al Jazeera.
Mejbari’s views are emblematic of an increasingly vocal strand of public opinion in the eastern portion of Libya; here, many people feel angry and neglected by the government in Tripoli.
Cyrenaica (Barqa, in Arabic) is the land in the east of Libya. It runs roughly from the Sirte Basin in the west, to the Egyptian border in the east and then south to the borders of Sudan and Chad, and covers approximately 855,370sqr km. This vast region includes the cities of Benghazi, Darnah and Tobruk.
The federalist movement was revived in eastern Libya after the 2011 revolution that ousted longtime leader Muammar Gaddafi. Most in the federalist movement seek greater regional autonomy, rather than complete secession from Libya.
Statistics on how much support federalism has among Libyans are difficult to come by. The International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) issued a report in 2013 on voters’ opinions of the election process in Libya. It found that “Benghazi participants talked about administrative federalism as their favoured system of governance for the future. Overall, even those who reject federalism seemed wary of a fully centralised system and called for provisions in the new constitution that will ensure decentralisation.”
Federalism is the fairest system, as it respects the varied social composition of Libya whilst still treating provinces equally.
An independent government for Cyrenaica was formed in 2013, with a cabinet of 20 ministers and a self-appointed prime minister, Abdrabbo al-Barassi. To date, this shadow government has only held symbolic power in Libya, but it has raised the profile of the federalist campaign.
It has also prompted concessions from the central government, which promised to move the offices of the National Oil Corporation (NOC) to Benghazi, along with other significant public entities such as Libyan Airlines and the Libyan Insurance Company. The move has not yet taken place, further adding to feelings of marginalisation in the East.
“The inhabitants of Cyrenaica have a unique and common identity. Cyrenaica has always been an independent Emirate,” said Osama Buera, a member of the self-appointed Political Council for Cyrenaica, formed in 2013, and the son of Abu Bakr Buera, president of the Federalist National Union Party.
Anas Toweir is a doctor and worked in two Benghazi hospitals during the revolution. “The best solution for Libya is to go back to its roots. Federalism is the fairest system, as it respects the varied social composition of Libya whilst still treating provinces equally.”
Toweir’s family roots are in the eastern city of Jalu, famous for its dates and oil reserves. “Jalu is thought to be one of the more impoverished regions in Libya, despite living virtually on top of the black gold,” he told Al Jazeera. “The oil is right under their feet and the people are barely living.”
The People of Jalu criticise the oil companies for not using the local labour force. They are also concerned about the amount of pollution they say they are exposed to as a result of the local oil fields. “We need an equitable distribution of oil revenues. People are not getting their rights under the existing structure… the discrepancies between eastern and western Libya are still huge,” Toweir said.
With the largest oil reserves in Africa, Libya is a key member of OPEC. Hydrocarbons account for more than 95 percent of the country’s exports, and 80 percent of reserves are believed to be located in the east.
Last July, Ibrahim Jedran, a well-known figure of the federalist movement, and his militia led the takeover of four oil terminals in the east. This strangulation of oil output severely affected the Libyan economy, and is thought to have caused a loss of approximately $14bn in revenues to the energy-reliant Libyan nation.
Attempts to sell the oil to external parties led to the Morning Glory tanker crisis: a vessel was loaded with crude oil at the rebel-held eastern port of Al-Sidra, then escaped a Libyan naval blockade and entered into international waters. This incident not only proved to be the final nail in the coffin for ex-Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, who was removed from office after losing a no-confidence vote in parliament, but also saw the international spotlight fall onto Libya.
The UN issued a resolution condemning attempts to illicitly export crude oil and imposed sanctions on vessels involved in such efforts. American Navy Seals also intervened to return the Morning Glory tanker from international waters back to Libya.
Prior to his resignation, interim Prime Minister Abdullah Al-Thinni, along with Justice Minister Salah Al-Marghani, were able to broker a deal with Jedran and his militia, allowing for the reopening of two ports (Zueitina and Hariga) and the slow resumption of oil production.
This fragile deal with Jedran and the Morning Glory episode were both motivated by federalist demands for greater regional autonomy in the east. Both have raised the profile of the federalist movement nationally and internationally, making it an issue that can no longer afford to be ignored in the national debate.
“We want political recognition nationally and internationally. This has already begun with support from Russia and certain US politicians,” said Osama Buera, from the Political Council for Cyrenaica. He estimated that 65-70 percent of people support federalism in the east.
The militias cannot force the federalist principle on the people. We just can't handle a civil war at the moment.
Mohammed Younis Toumi, a member of Libya’s central government, the General National Congress (GNC), told Al Jazeera: “We are strongly against the use of federalism as a means of destabilising the country or for self-gain and power. All options are, however, on the table from federalism to the monarchy… Libya needs a mature debate about its future.”
But people in the east remain cautious of how the federalist movement has been gaining ground.
Rawad Radwan, 24, is a prominent blogger and social commentator. Originally from Benghazi, he has spent most of his life in the capital, Tripoli. Rawad believes secession is an extreme option and strongly disagrees with the federalist movement. However, he does acknowledge that by ignoring the federalist issue, the government has “created a vacuum which the militias have taken advantage of, blocking roads and oil terminals.”
Rawad told Al Jazeera that other solutions exist to deal with the lack of representation in the east, including “more active municipalities empowered to take decisions and the enforcement of local governance laws”.
“The militias cannot force the federalist principle on the people. We just can’t handle a civil war at the moment,” he added.
In recent weeks, a pre-agreement for a referendum in the east has been discussed between the government and the federalists. However, many believe it may be too early for a referendum and instead favour efforts to achieve national peace and stability.
“In order to realise the aims of the revolution, Libya needs effective local government coupled with national reform. Local devolution will need to be supported by a stronger central government with the power to coordinate and implement a national agenda,” Youssef Sawani, a professor of politics and international relations at Tripoli University, told Al Jazeera.
“At the same time, this stronger central government needs to be balanced by mechanisms that give voice to local concerns.”
Should a referendum occur, it will no doubt open the door to calls for greater autonomy in the Fezzan province too, which is slowly amassing its own public support. In September 2013, federalists from the southwest Fezzan province of Libya attempted to form their own Supreme Council seeking greater regional autonomy.
This nascent federalist movement was quickly quashed by local councils in Sebha who remain in favour of national unity, however, and was disrupted by ongoing regional clashes.
Abubakr Alzilawi is the Editor of Voice of Fezzan, a-Tebu language newspaper in Fezzan. “There is a rapidly growing interest in the federalism debate in the Fezzan. Although the movement is still young and has no clear leader, public opinion is warming to the idea as more and more people feel excluded by the center,” he told Al Jazeera.
To date, little has been achieved by federalists in Fezzan, who feel increasingly disconnected from the GNC. But if the central government remains weak, demands for regional autonomy will no doubt grow louder.