Oil-rich Cyrenaica declares autonomy, militias flex their muscles and Libya faces the threat of fragmentation and the political ascendancy of uncompromising Islamists, laments Gamal Nkrumah
March 11, 2012
If a perfect storm ever bore down on an Arab leader, 2011 is the year. The conflict over how to handle Libya's political problems darkened on Tuesday when tribal leader and militia commanders declared their commitment to the creation of a semi-autonomous region in the eastern part of the country, namely Cyrenaica better known as Barqa in Arabic.
Divided, Libya is bound to disintegrate into economically unavailing political entities, with the notable exception perhaps of Cyrenaica. Barqa is the part of the country that has the largest reserves of oil and natural gas. It is also a rich agricultural region, especially the mountainous coastal area that receives the highest precipitation in the country. And, Cyrenaica has been the hotbed of revolution, the focus of the uprising that led to the overthrow of the regime of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
"This is a very dangerous precedent. This is a blatant call for fragmentation. We reject it in its entirety," Fathi Baja head of the political committee of Libya's ruling National Transitional Council (NTC).
The NTC has limped from one crisis to the next since the gruesome assassination of Gaddafi last October. Critics of the NTC claim that predictably this is an entirely self-inflicted wound. The NTC has courted popularity but left the reins of real power to local militias scattered around the country. The leaders of Cyrenaica were, of course, within their rights to jettison the autonomy or self-rule deal.
Cyrenaican tribal leaders and militiamen popularly elected Ahmed Al-Zubair, Libya's longest serving political prisoner under Gaddafi, as the leader of Barqa. Al-Zubair is a descendant of the last Libyan monarch King Idris and his ideological orientation is decidedly Islamist.
The newest twist in this epic of incompetence by the NTC is that it failed to capitalise on its earlier political head start in the east of the country. The meeting of Cyrenaican tribal leaders and warlords took place in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city and the economic hub of Cyrenaica.
The major tribal groupings of Cyrenaica were represented and they include the Ubaidat, the Mughariba and the Awajir. The tribes of the southeastern part of the country, technically under the administration of Cyrenaica such as the Toubou were under-represented. They were suspected as being Gaddafi loyalists. And, the reaction of the NTC leadership to the news of the Cyrenaican self-rule proposal has been choleric to say the least.
The Cyrenaicans, however, have been quick to assuage the fears of the NTC authorities in Tripoli. "We are against the divisions and against any move that hurts the unity of the country. Federalism is not division, but unity," explained Fadl-Allah Haroun, a Cyrenaican militia leader. "We are not talking about changing the flag or national anthem. We are talking about different and separate administration that deals with our particular problems and concerns. We want a regional parliament to become the venue for deliberating on regional matters. We also want to manage our own financial affairs," Haroun expounded.
This could hardly look worse to the NTC authorities in Tripoli. The timing of the Benghazi meeting is ominous. Political parties are in the process of being established in the run-up top parliamentary elections in June. The first to do so were the Islamists who look like stealing the political show.
Libya's Muslim Brotherhood teamed up with other like-minded hitherto politically independent Islamists and other religiously inclined groups to form the Justice and Construction Party.
There was little of the usual fanfare that often accompanies the formation of a new political party. "We aim for diversity and a state of law where differences in opinion are respected," declared Mohamed Sawan who was elected leader of the new party. "This is the founding conference of a national, civil party with an Islamic frame reference. It is being established by the Muslim Brotherhood and many independents who are not affiliated to any Islamic organisations," Lamine Belhadj, a senior official in the NTC who heads the committee that laboured to set up the new moderate Islamist party.
By taking this step, the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood promises to follow in the footsteps of its Egyptian mother movement. Libya's Muslim Brotherhood movement was founded in 1949 as an offshoot of the eponymous Egyptian mother organisation. However, Gaddafi banned it and the organisation was not permitted to hold public meetings until November 2011 after the gruesome murder of the late Libyan leader. However, it is not yet clear what its regional especially Arab and African policies will be. Libya under Gaddafi was a tremendous force in African continental politics.
The Justice and Construction Party did not specify its African policy, but it is clear that it will be oriented to the Muslim nations of the continent and that it will strengthen ties with Arab countries in which the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated parties performed well in parliamentary elections, including Egypt. It is also likely to cement relations with the oil-rich Gulf Arab states.
Libya has already signaled that it is willing to take a more independent line from the both the Western powers and the conservative Gulf-Arab states.
Despite deep misgivings within the rank-and-file of the NTC, the fact that many members of the NTC are sympathetic to the cause of the Muslim Brotherhood puts the new party in a powerful position to play a central political role in the post-Gaddafi period.
However, the new Libyan leadership stresses that it will not fundamentally alter the regional and continental orientation put in place by Gaddafi.
"Libya is an integral part of its African, Arab and Mediterranean environment. We are ready to cooperate with everyone," Libyan Prime Minister Abdel-Rahman Al-Keib told reporters in Tripoli.
In broad terms that is what must happen -- and most likely will, eventually. "Libya's borders are a red line," Mohamed Sennoussi a representative of the Toubou ethnic group geographically concentrated in the southeastern city of Kufra. The tribal groups like the Tuareg and the Toubou who were pro-Gaddafi must be incorporated and integrated fully in the new political dispensation in Libya. This is a challenge the NTC will come across in the moths ahead. Tribal rivalries and animosities continue to be a powerful destructive and divisive force in the country. The NTC must strive to bring all the diverse and disgruntled ethnic and political groups together. There is no sign of this yet, and little hope of change before June parliamentary elections.