Last Updated: Sun Mar 11, 2012 18:04 pm (KSA) 15:04 pm (GMT)

‘The rift in post- Qaddafi Libya’

Musa Keilani

Is there a new civil war in the making in Libya? It does appear so, with local leaders announcing that they plan to make Benghazi and the surrounding areas a “semi-autonomous region” and the new regime in Tripoli pledging to unite the country even “with force”.

The move by Benghazi leaders underlines their frustration on several counts. They believe that they have not been given the recognition they deserve after they initiated the revolt that overthrew the regime of Muammar Qaddafi. They say that they are not represented in the new government led by the National Transitional Council (NTC), headed by Mustafa Abdul Jalil. They are also upset that the NTC absorbed a large number of Qaddafi loyalists who, they think, should even be tried for their role in the oppressive regime that was toppled.

The rift in post-Qaddafi Libya owes its roots to the very creation of modern Libya. The situation could be considered largely similar to the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

Libya achieved independence from Italy in December 1951. It had been held under British (for Tripolitania and Cyrenaica) and French (Fezzan) administration since 1943. At that time, the colonial powers united the three regions and installed King Idris in power. However, the monarch was uneasy about the three areas being patched together because of the marked differences among the ethnicities of their people and the various tribes that lived there.

Qaddafi took advantage of the differences to overthrow Idris and assume power in 1969. He kept the country together using coercion, favours and sheer oppression against dissent.

The people of the eastern part of the country, including Benghazi, always felt that they were denied their share of national wealth and development (not to mention a role in Qaddafi's government). There was not much love lost among the residents of the three major parts of the country — the western Tripolitania, the eastern Cyrenaica and the central Fezzan. Those differences came to the fore in post-revolt Libya.

The Benghazi leaders’ move for semi-autonomy and a region called Barqa (Arabic name for Cyrenaica) is a serious threat to the central government since the area contains most of the country’s oil riches.

They named Ahmed Al Zubair Al Sanussi, a relative of the monarch overthrown in 1969, as head of the Cyrenaica Transitional Council. They said that they will leave defence, foreign affairs and hydrocarbon resources under the control of the central government.

The NTC’s threat to use “force” to keep Libya united reflects the new Libyan rulers’ determination not to relax their weak grip on power. However, the realities on the ground indicate that the NTC and the interim government it installed in Tripoli are unable to exert much authority.

Heavily armed militia groups refuse to surrender their weapons — looted from Qaddafi's military warehouses — and hold sway in their respective regions. Some of them often engage in shootouts to settle scores. They hold thousands of Qaddafi loyalists as prisoners and refuse to turn them over to the central authorities.

Chaos prevails in Tripoli, with rival militiamen in control of different parts of the capital. Crimes have shot up in post-revolt Libya. The central government has not made much headway in creating a central security force capable of enforcing law and order.

The proposed force is supposed to be made up largely of the revolutionary fighters who led the rebellion against Qaddafi, but they are the same ones who reign supreme in their fiefdoms, refusing to be disarmed.

Abdul Jalil, the NTC leader, has called for talks with the Benghazi leaders who, he said, are being manipulated by the remnants of the Qaddafi regime and external forces he did not name. He does not acknowledge the reality that the eastern region has yet to benefit from the country’s oil wealth. Benghazi, the country’s second largest city, needs immediate money to start rebuilding.

While questions have been raised whether there is popular support for the move towards semi-autonomy in eastern Libya, the new Tripoli rulers’ inability to improve transport, health, education and other public services should be convincing the people that it is time they took affairs into their hands.

A similar crisis could also be brewing in the Western Mountains where the Berbers (Amazigh) are a majority but are denied what they consider as their legitimate rights. The Berber tribes have long been vying for water and land rights. Qaddafi pitted the tribes against each other in an attempt to keep them under control. They united to topple Qaddafi and now it seems that they are also determined not to allow the NTC to control their region.

The only future for Libya lies in national unity. This should be appreciated by the different communities of the country. Their leaders should get together, perhaps in an Afghan-style gathering, to present their respective positions and demands with a view to working out compromises and solutions. If they do not, they will be facing crises and create more suffering for their people.

Jordan can contribute to rebuilding Libya’s infrastructure. Jordanian businessmen who are about to build a state-of-the-art hospital in Libya say that the market there can easily solve the unemployment crisis here. Moreover, the Jordanian know-how is badly needed there.

It might be time for Jordanian decision makers to make a second intensive trip to Benghazi, of longer duration and doing a field study of the projects and needs, rather than engage in the usual short exchange of courtesies and congratulations.

The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in Jordan Times on Mar. 10, 2012

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