A large map of Libya hangs on the wall in the home of Idris al-Rahel, with a line down the middle dividing the country in half.
Al-Rahel, a former army officer, leads a movement to declare virtual autonomy in eastern Libya, where most of the country’s oil fields are located. The region’s top tribal leaders meet Tuesday in the east’s main city Benghazi to consider unilaterally announcing an eastern state, linked to the west only by a tenuous “federal union.”
Opponents fear a declaration of autonomy could be the first step toward outright dividing the country. But some easterners say they are determined to end the domination and discrimination by the west that prevailed under strongman Muammar Qaddafi.
Al-Rahel points to the capital Tripoli on the map, in the west. “All troubles came from here,” he said, “but we will not permit this to happen again.”
The move shows how six months after Qaddafi’s fall, the central government in Libya has proved incapable of governing at all. Other countries that shed their leaders in the Arab Spring revolts - Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen - are going through rocky transitions, but none has seen a collapse of central authority like Libya. The collapse has only worsened as cities, towns, regions, militias and tribes all act on their own, setting up their independent power centers.
After liberation from the rule of Qaddafi, Libyans dreamed their country of 6 million could become another Dubai - a state with a small population, flush with petro-dollars, that is a magnet for investment. Now they worry that it is turning more into another Somalia, a nation that has had no effective government for more than 20 years.
Libya may not face literal fragmentation, but it could be doomed to years of instability as it recovers from four decades of rule under Qaddafi, who pitted neighbor against neighbor, town against town and tribe against tribe. The resentment and bitterness he incubated is now bursting forth in general lawlessness.
“What Qaddafi left in Libya for 40 years is a very, very heavy heritage,” said Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the National Transitional Council, which in theory rules Libya but doesn’t even hold sway in the capital Tripoli. “It’s ... hard to get over it in one or two years or even five years.”
Signs of the government’s weakness are everywhere.
Tripoli remains under the control of various revolutionaries-turned-militiamen, who have resisted calls to integrate into a national army.
Kufra, deep in the deserts of the south, is a battleground for two rival tribes, one Arab and one African, who killed dozens in two weeks of fighting last month.
And Misrata, the country’s third-largest city and just two hours’ drive east of the capital, effectively rules itself, with its militias ignoring government pleas and exacting brutal revenge on anyone they believe to have supported Qaddafi.
At a Misrata garage that has been turned by militiamen into a makeshift prison, one detainee, Abdel-Qader Abdel-Nabi, shows what remains of his left hand: The fingers have been cut off in a ragged line about halfway down. Abdel-Nabi said militiamen lashed his hand with a horse whip until the fingers were severed.
“Then they threw me bleeding down the stairs,” he said. His interrogators were trying to get him to confess to working with Qaddafi’s forces during last year’s civil war and collaborating in the killing of rebel fighters.
Around 800 other detainees are held in the same facility, which militiamen allowed The Associated Press to visit. The detainees are accused of involvement in killings, torture, rape and other crimes under Qaddafi. There are no courts at the moment capable of addressing the suspicions, so the detainees are entirely at the mercy of militiamen.
Medics in a clinic set up in the garage said they have treated dozens tortured in interrogations. One medic said he had seen nine prisoners whose genitalia had been cut off, and others given electric shocks. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he feared retaliation by the militiamen.
Misrata was one of the few major cities in the west to rise up against Qaddafi last year, and paid for it with a months-long, devastating siege by regime forces. After repelling the assault, its militias joined the final march on Tripoli that captured the capital and brought down Qaddafi in August. It was Misrata militiamen who found Qaddafi in his final stronghold, the city of Sirte, and killed him in October.
Now the city seems determined to decide its own fate, creating a de facto self-rule. Last month, it held its own elections for a new city council, after forcing out a self-appointed council formed in the uprising which came to be seen as corrupt and ineffective.
The Tabu tribe
In the isolated southeastern town of Kufra, 600 miles (990 kilometers) from Benghazi, fighters from the powerful Zwia Arab tribe have besieged the African Tabu tribe in a battle for the past two weeks.
The Tabu, an ethnic minority indigenous to the area, were heavily suppressed under Qaddafi. After Qaddafi’s fall, the National Transitional Council assigned the Tabu to police the nearby borders with Chad and Sudan to stop smuggling - a trade dominated by the Zwia.
The Tabu say fighting erupted Feb. 11, after a Zwia smuggler killed six Tabu border guards. The Zwia in turn say the Tabu attacked them in an attempt to declare their own state in the area, which the Tabu deny.
Zwia, backed by tanks and armored vehicles, took control of the streets and entrances to the town of 700,000, battling with Tabu gunmen. They surrounded the main Tabu district, where an Associated Press reporter saw widespread damage to homes from rockets.
The district’s tiny, three-room hospital was packed with the injured, with only one doctor and 15 nurses. Empty water bottles were being used as blood bags. The doctor, Tarek Abu Bakr, said he has recorded 54 people killed. One Tabu leader, Eissa Abdel-Majed, put the toll at more than 100.
After two weeks of fighting, independent militias in the region finally mediated a tenuous truce. Authorities in Tripoli could do nothing, despite bluster about sending troops to separate the sides.
The violence highlights the weakness of the National Transitional Council, made up of representatives from around the country. The Council is overseeing the transition to democracy after Qaddafi’s fall, including the organizing of elections set for June. But besides having little ability to enforce decisions, it has been mired in its own divisions.
‘A boxing referee’
NTC chief Abdul-Jalil, a former reform-minded justice minister under Qaddafi, was largely welcomed as a clean and well-intentioned figure. But many feel he is not providing strong enough leadership.
Mohammed Ali, a politician who works closely with Abdul-Jalil, described his style as that of a boxing referee. “He stands on the side watching to see who wins, then raises his hand to declare him victorious,” said Ali.
A frustrated Abdul-Jalil admitted mistakes. “But democracy is the reason,” he told AP. “In every single decision, I have to get the vote” of 72 Council members.
The Council’s attempts to put together a law governing the election are weeks behind schedule. It has put forward three drafts, each met by a storm of criticism from various factions that forced a rewrite. The election is to choose a 200-member assembly tasked with writing a new constitution and forming a government.
The drafts allocate about 60 seats for the east, compared to 102 for the west, because the drafters say the breakdown reflects the larger population in the west. But for angry easterners, it smacks of the years of discrimination under Qaddafi, who focused development in the west while largely neglecting the east and its main city, Benghazi.
The east was long a center of opposition to Qaddafi, the source of failed coups and assassination attempts against him - and Qaddafi punished it by depriving its cities of funds for services, health care and schools. However, the east, with its oil fields, is also the source of the vast majority of Libya’s revenue.
“The westerners have been milking us like a cow,” said al-Rahel.”They built towers, airports and hotels while we were deprived of everything.”
Benghazi was the first city to shed Qaddafi’s rule last year, and the entire east quickly followed. But after his death, the National Transitional Council moved from Benghazi to the capital, and formed an interim Cabinet dominated by figures from the west.
The fight is also fueling a movement to revive a federal system that existed in Libya under the monarchy before it was toppled in the 1967 coup led by Qaddafi. Under that system, Libya was divided into three states, Tripolitania in the west, Fezzan in the southwest and Cyrenaica - or Barqa, as it was called in Arabic - which encompassed the eastern half of the country.
Al-Rahel’s National Federal Union movement calls for a return to that system, giving each region its own capital, parliament, police and courts. Al-Rahel cites the American model of states and a federal government.
On Tuesday, at a gathering of about 3,000 easterners in Benghazi, planners aim to announce the creation of Barqa state and call for other regions to follow in forming a federal system, said Abu Bakr Baaira, a co-founder of the group. He dismissed worries the move will break Libya apart and said Barqa would seek U.N. backing if Tripoli refuses.
“Are the U.S., Switzerland and Germany divided?” he said. “We hope they don’t force us to a new war and new bloodshed. This is the last thing we look for.”
Forming an army
Easterners have already formed their army, the Barqa Supreme Military Council, made up of revolutionary fighters who rose up to battle Qaddafi last year. Their commander, Col. Hamid al-Hassi, said his forces are now willing to fight for autonomy if Tripoli doesn’t grant it.
“Even if we had to take over the oil fields by deploying our forces there or risk another war, we will not hesitate for the sake of Barqa,” he told AP.
A spokesman for the Tripoli government, Ashour Shamis, said the NTC rejects the plan, and instead backs a decentralization that would give considerable authority to local city or district governments but preserve a strong central government.
Even some easterners are worried. Fathi al-Fadhali, a prominent writer originally from Benghazi, says Libya isn’t ready for such a system. First, the country has to overcome the poisons of Qaddafi’s rule and establish a civil society where rights are respected.
“We are all polluted by Qaddafi’s evil, violence, envy, terrorism, and conspiracies,” he said, “myself included.”