News / Middle East

Libyan Federalists Raise Tensions

Libyan protesters hold the flag of the eastern Cyrenaica region during a demonstration calling for greater autonomy in the eastern city of Benghazi on November 2, 2012. AFP FILE
Libyan protesters hold the flag of the eastern Cyrenaica region during a demonstration calling for greater autonomy in the eastern city of Benghazi on November 2, 2012. AFP FILE
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.

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Comments
     
by: Masoud S Buisir. from: Boston MA
November 07, 2013 2:24 AM
The writer needs to do a better job of investigating. Federalists are against those militias that are supported and financed by the Islamist central government in Tripoli. I am sure the writer didn't hear about the 900 million Libyan Dinars (600 million US dollars) to those militias. And I am sure the writer was not told about the massacre on that black Saturday where over 41 youths were killed by one of these armed thugs and the head of that clan escaped to Tripoli and was given a house, more money and a security position to secure the Capitol. The writer also doesn't know that that thug was on TV threatening certain people and tribes in Benghazi about three weeks ago and the killings know are more intense than any other time. Journalism is a responsibility and the writer here is irresponsible.

by: Khaled Saleh Amrouni from: College Station, Texas
November 06, 2013 10:11 PM
I am Libyan from the Cyrenaica, Benghazi, and I do support the federalism in Libya. I am really sad to find many wrong falls and wrong statements published in this article about the federalism movement in Cyrenaica.
1- The federalism supporters are the Libyans that want wealth to be share between all the three Libyan states (Cyrenaica State, Fazzan State, and Tripoli State).
2-The federalism supporters are in favor of forming a strong national Libyan Army forces.
3- The federalism supporters are against any armed radical militias, and they kicked out all radical militias from Benghazi, the Friday after the American Ambassadress death announcement. Six brave, federalism supporters, Libyan young men killed by the extremist militias that night.

On the contrary
1- The present day Libyan government (Controlled by Islamic Brotherhoods) wants the extremists militias to stay and give them legality and wide range authorities.
2- The present day Libyan government (Controlled by Islamic Brotherhoods) is guarde by the armed extremist militias and use these militias to kill Libyan people . For instance, in June-2012 the governmental extremists militia (called Libyan Shield Forces) opened the fire from heavy guns machines to kill more than 50 federalism supporters Libyan young men and injure more than 150 federalism supporters Libyan young men in few hours in Benghazi, Libyans.
3- The present day Libyan government is controlled by the armed Islamic radical militias and and the Islamic Brotherhoods that both do not want the Libyan national army to form.

These are very brief comments on this very injustice article. Also, you always need to cite your evidence when you accuse some one with something.

by: Libyan federalist from: Benghazi
November 06, 2013 9:43 PM
You need to get your facts straight.
Suspects in the murder of the American ambassador are anything but federalist. As a a matter of fact they are allies with anti-federalist factions from Misurata and the Muslim brotherhood.
Media outlets affiliated with the latter two have always been finding excuses for the horrible acts committed by the so called Ansar Al Sharia, while at the same time bombarding the federalists with smear campaigns.
You need a better perspective on the situation in Libya. try diversifying your sources.

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