Last Saturday May 17th, amidst heavy fighting in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi, civilians were told to leave town as troops prepared for a new assault on Islamist militias. These were not however part of the country’s army but of the self-declared Libyan National Army, which includes some army and air force units led by the retired general, Khalifa Heftar, as the interim authorities had previously denounced an offensive launched by the former general against Islamists as a “coup” bid. This is not the first alarming news coming from the North African country.
Even though the news went unnoticed because Ukraine and the Malayan plane swamped our screens for a while, Libya is not faring that well. First, a Panamanian-flagged North Korean tanker (beautifully called “Morning Glory”) took an illegal cargo of crude oil from rebels in the east of the country and safely left the port, ignoring the government’s threats of military action. Afterwards and as a consequence, Libya’s former Prime Minister fled the country last week after Parliament voted him out of office. The result was that militias based in Misrata (northwestern Libya) launched an offensive against the eastern rebels, in what was at first (wrongly) regarded as the beginning of a civil war between western and eastern Libya. And now the election of an interim Primer Minister on May 4th – the businessman Ahmad Mitig – has only lead to increased confusion and uncertainty, for disagreements over the legality of the outcome have been raised. Many claim the interim Prime Minister should still be Al-Thinni, the country’s former defense minister, who had however stepped down after he and his family were attacked.
All of this leads to a question nobody dares to ask out loud nowadays in Tripoli: is Libya on the verge of breaking apart? Or, as some analyst wonder, is Libya facing a process of “Somalization” and thus becoming a failed state?
Who are the ‘separatists’?
The separatists, who have already been accused by the US of oil theft, have seized three major Libyan ports since August to press their demands for more autonomy. They have likewise been blockading oil terminals in eastern Libya for months, not only for political reasons but also because of the share in lucrative oil revenues they are reaping.
Most of the separatists are former rebels who led the uprising in Benghazi, but who then turned against the interim government after the ouster of Moamer Gaddafi in 2011 (whose son is nowadays beind judged before Tripoli court via videolink from Zintan on charges of corruption and war crimes). These former rebels/current separatists are taking advantage of the fact that Libya does not have a real central government with any real power.
The country’s economy, in spite of its enviable resources, is in no better shape. Oil is a key source of revenue for Libya, and its oil exports, following the blockade of terminals, have fallen from 1.4 million barrels a day in 2011 to 235,000 barrels a day today. And this in spite of the fact that before the war the country had over $100 billion of treasury surplus. The security situation is far from improving: unpunished militias are said to hold 8,000 people in prisons, many of whom say they have been tortured. Days ago, the Jordanian Ambassador was freed after having being kidnapped for over a month. Kidnappings have become the daily bread in the main cities. Millions of arms, including heavy weapons, are today scattered all over the country and have even reached Syria and Saudi Arabia. Gaddafi completely destroyed the state, and everything in Libya has had to be -and still is – built from scratch – constructing its identity is a particularly singular case.
What do the separatists stand for? They demand not mere autonomy but something close to independence. The territory of Cyrenaica (Barqa, in Arabic) followed concrete steps in this sense: it first established a shadow government, after advocating for a loose federal system of government sharing power for months with Fezzan, the south western region of Libya.
In June 2013, Sheikh Ahmed Zubair Senussi, head of the Cyrenaica Transitional Council, declared self-government, stating: “Cyrenaica is a federal territory within the framework of the Libyan state and as of this day, June 1st 2013, will start to run its own affairs” at an event designed to commemorate the 64th anniversary of the 1949 Declaration of Independence by the Emirate of Cyrenaica. Last but not least, on November 4th 2013, it unilaterally declared its condition of “semi-autonomous state”. The separatist region even announced the establishment of an independent oil company after taking over several commercial sea ports.
The self-proclaimed government of Cyrenaica insists that their aim is not to defy government or Congress, but rather to claim their rights to export. The biggest crisis up to now erupted last July, when security guards at key oil terminals shut the terminals down, accusing the authorities of corruption and demanding a more equitable distribution of oil revenues. Benghazi, Libya’s second city, has been complaining for decades of being sidelined from the political arena, and under Kadhafi, even of being marginalized. The east is where most of the country’s wealth lies, in the form of oil reserves. It made sense that the uprising started there, as the city has for years been a hub for intellectual, dissenters, unsatisfied youth and political activists.
Separatism in Libya: nothing new?
While the central government struggles to regain control, Libya seems to slip into a new string of deadly attacks in Tripoli and the eastern part of the country at least once a month. Ever since the revolution broke out, the country has had no real institutions or, for that matter, no army or police. The government says it needs more time to create a professionally trained security force. In the meantime, lawlessness becomes the norm, and militias and tribal leaders, hoisting the weapons the international community provided them with three years ago, make good use of the situation, taking control of both towns and vital sources of revenue.
Last November, authorities of the self-proclaimed Cyrenaican government announced live on national television that an oil firm called Libya Oil and Gas Corp had been set up in Tobruk next to the Hariga port. This was, they said, a step prior to the creation of an eastern central bank (probably in order to amass their oil and blood-tainted money) and a Cyrenaican Defense Force.
Other towns and cities forged ahead with their own democratic experiments: for instance, Libya’s third-largest city, Misrata, unilaterally held elections to a local council last year. Here, the central government did not utter a word. The difference lies in the fact that, while Benghazi is resorting to rhetoric and violence, Misrata simply got on with it. Another case emerged in March 2012, when a Libyan tribe, the Tabus, threatened to declare a separate state in Libya’s south after days of bloody battles with rival Arab tribes, including the Abu Seif tribe in the city of Sabha and Zwiya in Kufra, near the border with Chad.
But… what does semi-autonomy mean in practice? 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, where the federal state separatists would like the border to lie.
A federal arrangement, symbolised by the 1951 Constitution, was in force during the 1950s. Afterwards, Libya was divided into three administrative regions: Tripolitania in the northwest, Fezzan in the southwest, and Cyrenaica in the east. The three areas exercised a significant degree of autonomy through regional legislatures. The truth is that Libya has not always existed as a single country, but was divided into three territories claimed by some as nations, before it was invaded by Italy. The three colours of the current Libyan flag actually represent these three Libyan provinces. Cyrenaica’s flag is black with the white crescent and star of the short-lived Emirate of Cyrenaica, founded in 1920 and quickly dismantled by the Italians.
Contrary to Tripoli, a city that has grown from the meddling of different identities, Cyrenaica has forged its identity on a strong sense of tribal membership that today remains present even among the urban youth. The region finds its foundations in the nine members of the Saadian tribes, the tribes’ historical “clients” and members of merchant families from the west. Most nationalists would like to re-establish the system put into place under King Idris before being overthrown by Gaddafi himself.
Some frustrated rogue activists, notably extremists accused of the Benghazi attacks of 9/11/2012
, have already resorted to violence. Many Libyans fear their demands will not be satisfied with mere semi-autonomy and believe the members of the movement will later demand full independence, dangerously following the same steps of their South/Sudanese brethren and thus plunging the country into another civil war. Growing federalism is, barring the Kurdish issue, precisely one of the issues other Arab countries have not had to tackle. Until now.
An uncertain future
This is not the only division the country faces. Both before and after the uprising, Libya was divided: on one hand, there were the territories that were allied to Gaddafi, in cahoots with the leader and thus incredibly favoured by the regime – such as his hometown, Sirte. On the other hand, the tyrant was for decades accused of neglecting and even sidelining other areas of the country, for instance Benghazi and its surroundings.
And the abyss between winners and losers who one day fought together, the latter having escaped or being forced to face dire marginalization, grows by the day. Just like that, notably because the labor of the so-called “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” has stalled since its inception, nearly all citizens are denied the transitional justice they deserve.