On May 17th, amidst heavy fighting in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi, preparations were underway for a new assault on Islamist militias. The attacking troops, however, were not part of the country's military forces but of the self-declared Libyan National Army, which includes some army and air force units led by retired General Khalifa Heftar. The interim authorities had previously denounced an offensive launched by the former general against Islamists as a "coup" bid.
This is the latest in a series of alarming news from the North African country. Last month, as a consequence of a Panamanian-flagged North Korean tanker taking an illegal cargo of crude oil from rebels in the east of the country and safely leaving the port, ignoring the government’s threats of military action, Libya's former Prime Minister fled the country after Parliament voted him out of office. Militias based in Misrata (northwestern Libya) launched an offensive against the eastern rebels, in what was at first (wrongly) regarded as the beginning of a civil war between west and east.
All of this leads to a question nobody dares to ask out loud in Tripoli: is Libya on the verge of breaking apart? Is the country facing a process of "Somalization" and becoming a failed state?
Who are the ‘separatists’?
"Unpunished militias are said to hold 8.000 people in prisons"
Since August the separatists have seized three major Libyan ports, pressing their demands for more autonomy. They have likewise blocked oil terminals in eastern Libya for months, not only for political reasons but also for the lucrative oil revenues. Most of the separatists are former rebels who led the uprising in Benghazi, but who then turned against the interim government after the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. These former rebels/current separatists are taking advantage of Libya’s lack of central government.
The country’s economy is in no better shape. Oil is a key source of revenue for Libya, and its oil exports, following the blockade of terminals, have fallen from 1.4 million barrels/day in 2011 to today’s 235.000. And this in spite of the fact that before the war the country had over $100 billion of treasury surplus.
The security situation is far from improving: unpunished militias are said to hold 8.000 people in prisons, many of whom claim they have been tortured. The Jordanian Ambassador was recently freed after one month of abduction. Kidnappings have become the daily bread in the main cities. Millions of arms, including heavy weapons, are today scattered across the country, even reaching Syria and Saudi Arabia.
Lawlessness has become the norm, and militias and tribal leaders, hoisting the weapons the international community provided them with three years ago, make good use for taking control of both towns and vital sources of revenue. Gaddafi completely destroyed the state, and everything in Libya has had to be - and still is - built from scratch.
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What do the separatists want? They demand not mere autonomy but something close to independence. The territory of Cyrenaica (Barqa, in Arabic) followed concrete steps in this sense: it first established a shadow government, after advocating for a loose federal system of government sharing power for months with Fezzan, the south western region of Libya and in June 2013, Sheikh Ahmed Zubair Senussi, head of the Cyrenaica Transitional Council, declared self-government.
On November 4 2013, it unilaterally declared its condition of “semi-autonomous state.” The separatist region even announced the establishment of an independent oil company after taking over several commercial seaports, a step prior to the creation of a Cyrenaican Defense Force.
The self-proclaimed government of Cyrenaica insists it is not defying the government or Congress, but rather claim their right to export. It has been complaining for decades of being sidelined from the political arena. The east is where most of the country’s wealth lies, in form of oil reserves. It made sense that the uprising started there, as the city has become a hub for intellectuals, dissenters, unsatisfied youth and political activists. Contrary to Tripoli, the city has grown from the meddling of different identities. Cyrenaica has forged its identity on a strong sense of tribal membership that today remains present even among the urban youth.
Separatism - nothing new?
The truth is that Libya has not always existed as a single country, but was divided into three territories before it was invaded by Italy, which are represented by the current flag’s three colours. According to an old Greek legend people from Carthage in the western Tripolitania region and people from Cyrenaica in the east “agreed to set the border between their competing spheres of influence at the point where runners starting from either sides would meet.” The tale goes that the runners met about halfway on the southern shore of the Gulf of Sirte, where the federal state separatists wanted the border to lie.
"The east is where most of the country’s wealth lies"
A federal arrangement, symbolised by the 1951 Constitution, was in force during the 1950s. Afterwards, Libya was divided into three administrative regions: Tripolitania in the northwest, Fezzan in the southwest, and Cyrenaica in the east. The three areas exercised a significant degree of autonomy through regional legislatures.
Other towns and cities forged ahead with their own democratic experiments, Misrata for example held elections to a local council last year. Here, the central government did not utter a word. The difference lies in the fact that, while Benghazi is resorting to rhetoric and violence, Misrata simply got on with it. Another case emerged in March 2012, when a Libyan tribe, the Tabus, threatened to declare a separate state in Libya’s south after days of bloody battles with rival Arab tribes, including the Abu Seif tribe in the city of Sabha and Zwiya in Kufra, near the border with Chad.
Some frustrated rogue activists, notably extremists, accused of the Benghazi attacks of 9/11/2012, have resorted to violence. Many Libyans fear their demands will not be satisfied with mere semi-autonomy and believe the members of the movement will demand full independence, dangerously following the same steps of their South/Sudanese brethren, which may plunge the country into another civil war.