TRIPOLI, LIBYA — Support for federalism is growing in eastern Libya, rattling the country’s new leaders and infuriating western Libyans, who fear federalists won't be satisfied with semi-autonomy, and will eventually demand full independence.
Federalists say the central government in Tripoli should only control defense, central banking and foreign policy, and that oil revenue, which is generated from oil fields concentrated in the east, should be shared.
The slow progress of reform, the failure of national politicians to put aside bickering, and a perception of being marginalized, are all fueling resentment in the east.
“There is a surge in the number of people who really want to go towards federalism," says federalist advocate Mohamed Buisier, son of a former Libyan foreign minister. "It is not because they don’t understand what federalism, is but because they feel it is a way out of being marginalized.”
The federalists feel Gadhafi neglected the eastern part of Libya, known as Cyrenaica, and complain post-Gadhafi leaders are continuing to marginalize the east.
They would also welcome semi-autonomy for the two other provinces of Libya, Fezzan in the southwest and Tripolitania in the west. That would be revive the federal system observed for most of the reign of King Idris, who ruled from 1951, after decolonization, until Gadhafi overthrew him in 1969.
Buisier believes a majority of people in Cyrenaica and Fezzan now support federalism.
“If there were a referendum today - I don’t have a scientific way to confirm that - but my feeling is that there would be a majority in Cyrenaica, and maybe also in Fezzan, a big portion, I don’t know if it is a majority or not - that would support a federal system,” he says.
Federalist demands have met strong resistance in Tripoli, as well as from powerful militia leaders in Misrata and Zintan, key towns in the revolution.
Even some politicians who harbor sympathy for federalist sentiment say the time is not right.
“In principle, I don’t reject federalism," says Abd Al-Wahhab Muhammad Qaid, chairman of the national security committee in the General National Congress, Libya’s parliament. "But now, during this time, it is not a high time or a suitable time to talk about federalism.”
Some frustrated federalists have already turned to violence. During last July’s national elections, federalists downed a helicopter, killing an election worker, and torched warehouses containing ballot papers in a bid to halt the voting.
Islamist revolutionary militias in Benghazi are being won over by the federalist argument. That includes Ansar al-Sharia, the militia blamed for the assault last September on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi which led to the death of the American ambassador, Christopher Stevens.
Could federalist leaders use violence to force through federalism? Buisier thinks not, but remains worried.
“No, no, no. I know their first concern is the sovereignty and unity of Libya," he says. "And federalism is called for as an internal way of ruling the country. But, would they be used by someone else? Could be.”
Alarmed Libyan leaders are doing everything they can to placate eastern federalists, short of agreeing to semi-autonomy for Cyrenaica.