Tribal leaders and militia commanders declare semi-autonomous region in the oil-rich eastern Libya, posing a new challenge to the country’s fragile cohesion after the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi.
Thousands of people attended the inaugural “Congress of the People of Cyrenaica” near the eastern city of Benghazi where they set out a proposal for Libya to be transformed into a federal state, one of the organizers said.
“We would like in Cyrenaica to take care of housing, education and other things and would delegate national security, defense ... to the central government,” said Mohammed Buisier, a Libyan-American who is helping organize the congress.
“We believe in one Libya,” he told Reuters by telephone from Benghazi, cradle of the revolution against Qaddafi last year.
“People in Cyrenaica have for 40 years suffered from negligence ... If we keep this negligence towards the east, I cannot guarantee that Libya will be united in 25 years-time.”
Any moves for greater autonomy for eastern Libya could unsettle the central government, and foreign oil firms, because the bulk of Libya’s oil reserves are in Cyrenaica and its biggest state oil company is based in Benghazi.
It was not clear how many in eastern Libya support the initiative.
Several thousand people marched to Benghazi’s courthouse on Monday night to express their opposition. The protesters chanted: “Libya is united!” and “Do not break up Libya!”
Abdullah Bin Idriss, a member of the local council in the town of Jalu, eastern Libya, said he was opposed to the idea. He said some of the pipelines that pump crude to the east's oil terminals flow through his district. If Benghazi declares autonomy, he told Reuters, “We will turn off their oil.”
For about 10 years after it became an independent state in 1951, Libya was run along federal lines, with power devolved to Cyrenaica, the southern province of Fezzan, and Tripolitania in the west of the country.
Libya centralized its government in the last years of the rule of King Idris, and Qaddafi accelerated the process when he came to power in a military coup in 1969.
Since Qaddafi’s 42-year rule ended, calls for federal rule have become more vocal. They have been fuelled by long-standing complaints in the east that it has not been given a fair share of Libya's wealth, and by the weakness of the central government which took over after Qaddafi’s overthrow.
Mohammed al-Harizi, a spokesman for the National Transitional Council (NTC), Libya’s interim leadership, said people were free to lobby for regional autonomy.
But he said: “This is not the vision of the NTC ... and I am sure that the Libyan people, as a whole, do not support this idea.”
The organizer of the Cyrenaica congress said there were no plans to unilaterally declare autonomy from the rest of Libya. He said delegates would be “putting on the table” their proposal, and would use peaceful means to press their case.
The idea of more autonomy could tap into discontent in Benghazi about the shortcomings of the NTC . Some people accuse it of being too slow to restore public services and of a lack of transparency in how it spends revenues from oil exports.
NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who is himself from the east, in January had to seek refuge from bottle-throwing protesters who stormed the council's Benghazi offices.
Buisier said the first steps would be to create a 300-member “High Council for Cyrenaica” and to lobby for Cyrenaica to be given more representation in an election, scheduled for June, to choose a new national assembly.
Asked if the province would take unilateral action if the central government blocked its plan for a federal state, he said: “I do not want to visit this. We will see.”
The revolt against Qaddafi’s rule began in Benghazi on Feb. 17 last year, when government troops fired on residents protesting against poverty, official neglect and repression. Until the revolt reached Tripoli, Benghazi was the headquarters of the anti-Qaddafi rebellion.
The proposal to give Cyrenaica autonomy is viewed with unease by many people in Tripoli, who believe it risks leading to the break-up of Libya.
“Unity is a red line and it is not up for discussion,” said Abbas al-Gadi, deputy head of the Libyan National Party, which will compete in the June election.