BEIRUT — Tensions in Libya are rising this week after federalism advocates in oil-rich eastern Libya have announced the formation of their own regional administration.
Sunday in the town of Ajdabiya, 150 kilometers south of Benghazi, Ibrahim Jathran and other federalist leaders accused the central government of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan of “incompetence and corruption.” Jathran, a former head of Libya’s Petroleum Protection Force turned on Zeidan earlier this year by using the force, which is largely made up of militias, to seize the country’s biggest oil-exporting ports Ras Lanuf and Es-Sider.
Federalist leaders who named a prime minister and a 24-member cabinet say that since the ouster of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Zeidan’s government and the Libyan parliament known as the General National Congress have failed the country, and especially eastern Libya which they call by its traditional name of Cyrenaica.
"The government and congress exploit Libya's wealth and use it to serve their agendas," says al-Jathran.
The self-declared regional Prime Minister, Abd-Rabbo al-Barassi, a former air force commander, insisted to reporters that it was “not a secession movement but a movement for Libya”, and that “Cyrenaica is the start and the aim is Libya -- a reference to the federalist position that Libya should be divided into three self-governing regions, Cyrenaica, Fezzan in the southwest and Tripolitania in the west.
So far Zeidan has not reacted to the declaration but the spokesman for Libya’s General National Congress, Omar Hemidan, dubbed the announcement of the “so-called Cyrenaica Region” illegal, saying no Libyan state institution would recognize the authority of the regional government.
“We said our position before about so-called Cyrenaica and repeat once again that despite the shortcomings in [government] performance, it doesn’t mean we divide Libya,” Hemidan said.
The move has caused jitters in global oil markets. The price of Brent crude jumped above $106 a barrel on the news.
Federalism has a history in Libya
A federal system was observed for most of the reign of King Idris, who ruled from 1951, after decolonization, until Gadhafi overthrew him in 1969. 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.
It isn’t clear whether federalists are prepared to engage in a violent confrontation, if challenged by the central government. But it also remains unclear if central authorities in Tripoli have the will and the firepower to take the federalists on, if they try actually to govern. Several powerful Benghazi militias back the federalists including some the leaders of the Islamist Ansar al-Sharia, whose members stand accused by U.S. authorities of having participated in the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate that led to the deaths of four Americans including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stephens.
This is the second time federalists have declared the formation of a regional government in eastern Libya. Another group led by former political prisoner Ahmed Zubair al-Senussi, a cousin of King Idris, announced last June the establishment of the Cyrenaica Transitional Council. But it didn’t have the backing of any large militias.
According to his aides, Prime Minister Zeidan tried to head off the self-rule announcement by negotiating with the federalists, who have been directing a months-long blockade of oilfields and seaports that have reduced Libya’s crude production.
Federalists have grown in strength in recent months with support for federalism increasing in eastern Libya and in the neglected south of the country, say its supporters and analysts. Benghazi is full of wall graffiti praising federalism.
Federalists tap into frustration
Some analysts argue that federalists feed off frustration with the slow progress of change and the lack of improvements in the daily lives of ordinary Libyans. "They are trying to use this power as a bargaining tool with the state. They want to disrupt the current political process and to do so they threaten to break off from Libya," said International Crisis Group's Claudia Gazzini.
But federalist advocate Mohamed Buisier, son of a former Libyan foreign minister, says it would be a mistake to downplay federalism. “There is a surge in the number of people who really want to go towards federalism," he says "It is not because they don’t understand what federalism is but because they feel it is a way out of being marginalized.”
He thinks even if Libya’s central government performed better, feelings of marginalization would remain. Federalism speaks to the strong sense of local identity Libyans harbor, he says.
Federalist demands have met strong resistance not only in Tripoli but from powerful militia leaders also in Misrata and Zintan, key towns in the revolution that toppled Gadhafi.
Earlier this year Alajami Ali Al-Ateri — the Zintan commander who captured Saif Al-Islam, Gaddafi’s son – told VOA that federalism was totally unacceptable, arguing “ it is a plot by Libya’s foreign enemies to divide the country.”
Some militant federalists have turned to violence in the past. During the national elections in July 2012, federalists downed a helicopter, killing an election worker, and they torched warehouses containing ballot papers in a bid to halt the voting.
Would federalist leaders use violence to force through federalism? Buisier thinks not, but unresolved grievances and festering frustration could always change that, he says.