A decision by a group of civic leaders in the Libyan eastern city of Benghazi to declare autonomy from central rule has raised fears that the country might break apart.
Some politicians and residents of Benghazi this week said they would run their own affairs, defying the government in Tripoli. They say they do not intend to divide the country but to end years of discrimination against the east under ousted dictator Colonel Moammer Gadhafi.
A provincial council was reportedly created to run the affairs of Cyrenaica, the historic province which runs from the border with Egypt in the east to half way across Libya’s Mediterranean coast.
But thousands of people protested in Libya’s two biggest cities on Friday in a show of opposition to the autonomy plan.
“We are going to see in Libya a variety of moves on behalf of the regions demanding autonomy,” said Dr. Walid Phares, an expert on the Middle East and author of "The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East.
These demands, he said, will create a crisis with a central government which has not yet been defined. “Libya is now in a transitional phase that could generate more crisis than before,”
Phares said the new regime in Tripoli is likely to push back on the demands for autonomy. “They will be concerned that if it [calls for autonomy] starts in the eastern part of the country it might spread to other areas of the country.”
The ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) is basically in the hands of the jihadists, said Phares, and the remnants of the former [Gadhafi] regime are trying to ferment trouble. “It is also a possibility that tribes that were supportive of Gadhafi may also demand some sort of political autonomy in their area.”
He said it is going to be a struggle between the central government now controlled by Islamist militias and all those against them.
Phares said while Libya was initially a federation under a King [Idris], before Gadhafi took over and became a unifier by force, now the Islamists are thinking of unifying Libya by ideology – Salafism. “It is not going to work with the tribes because they do not see this ideology – Salafism - as a unifying force.
The anti-Gadhafi forces, he explained, were a coalition of mostly Islamist forces, dissidents of the Libyan army, and tribes opposed to Gadhafi, and ethnic minorities. “This is a very vast coalition of forces that didn’t have enough time to hold a conference to create the foundation of a new Libyan republic.
Most Libyan didn’t want an Islamist state, said Phares, “…so now we are going to see more and more opposition either by tribes or ethnicities to the Islamist regime.”
“They need to move toward a conference that will declare a pluralist democratic state where all forces, including Islamists, are represented.”
Libya is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in June followed by a constitutional referendum.