One of the biggest complexities of Libya’s revolution involves the relationship between the central government and the provinces, which have often enjoyed considerable powers of self-rule at various moments throughout Libyan history. Muammar Qaddafi did his best to stamp out memories of strong regional power, but since the fall of his government two years ago, local identities have reasserted themselves with a vengeance.
On Saturday, June 1, Ahmed Zubair al-Senussi, the leader of the self-proclaimed government in the eastern province of Cyrenaica, issued a declaration of semi-independence. From now on, he said in his speech, Cyrenaica will be a "self-governing region." He made his proclamation in front of a big, jubilant audience gathered in the city of El Marj; the increasing presence of the black Cyrenaica flag — the inspiration for Libya’s national flag — is a vivid reminder of the regional pressures facing the Libyan authorities as they embark on drafting a new constitution.
Senussi chose the timing for his remarks carefully. It was on June 1, 1949, that King Idris al-Senussi declared the independence of the Emirate of Cyrenaica from the British, paving the way for the formation of the United Kingdom of Libya two years later. And yes, the similarity in the two men’s name is no accident: Today’s Senussi is a distant relative of the king, who ruled Libya until 1969. The Cyrenaican leader served for a while on the post-Qaddafi National Transitional Council before resigning to run the regional government in Cyrenaica.
Of course, the tricky part of all this is that the authority of Senussi’s regional administration, the Cyrenaica Council, remains unclear, and it’s entirely uncertain how it will be able to implement its plans for autonomy. The Council does, however, enjoy the support of powerful tribal factions who are concerned about maintaining the rule of law in a country awash in weapons and rival militias. Over the past few weeks, armed militias affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and the city of Misrata demonstrated their muscle by taking over government ministries in Tripoli and pressuring to pass the controversial Political Isolation Law.
Cyrenaica’s federalists have been pushing for a decentralized government structure in Libya since their first declaration of autonomy in March 2012. The federalists complain that the central government has long excluded the oil-rich province from its fair share of Libya’s wealth. Regional leaders are also worried by the weakness of the central government and its failure to establish control on the ground.
The day after Cyrenaica’s declaration of autonomy, lawmakers in Tripoli announced that they would form a committee to formulate a response. The committee would seek to reach out to the federalists in Cyrenaica to find a way forward and prevent any escalations to the situation. The General National Council (GNC), the interim legislature, has been very cautious in its reaction to the situation, since they’re all too aware that any further escalation of the situation could result in armed confrontations with the federalist or perhaps even prompt them to try to seize eastern oil installations.
During his Saturday speech to a rally in the town of al-Marj, Senussi specifically outlined his vision that Cyrenaica would be "a federal region within the framework of the Libyan state that will be governed in accordance with the 1951 constitutional frame and will establish its own regional government and its own parliament to run the affairs of Cyrenaica." Going a step further, he even requested that the central government deposit the region’s budget into the Central Bank branch in the Cyrenaican capital of Benghazi. But his speech left out any sort of specific timetable for implementing autonomy.
Senussi also aimed his remarks at the international community. He promised to abide by all international treaties and conventions with an emphasis on women and child rights. He also included soothing words for Libya’s neighbors, promising to fight terrorism and illegal immigration.
Opponents of federalism in Libya maintain that the declaration amounts to the independence of Cyrenaica and separation from the rest of Libya. The federalists themselves, however, insist that their efforts to promote federalism are not intended to compromise the unity of the Libyan state. Of course, the present manifest weakness of the central government in Libya isn’t calculated to assuage such fears.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of Senussi’s declaration was its rejection of the Political Isolation Law, which, the federalists say, was passed "at gunpoint." This makes the federalists the first political movement in Libya to publicly and strongly oppose the controversial law. In this sense, Senussi’s declaration actually gives the central government some extra political capital to oppose the unreasonable demands made by the militias that have been seeking to expand their influence since the liberation from Qaddafi’s regime.
Despite all their recent talk about the urgent need for a national dialogue in Libya, the country’s politicians and officials have so far failed miserably at translating their words into actions. If this declaration by the federalists actually serves to kick-start the long awaited national dialogue, it could actually help to open a path toward a safer and healthier environment for drafting the country’s constitution.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.