Benghazi Breakaway Highlights Libya's Uncertain Future

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Esam Al-Fetori / Reuters

Libyans in Benghazi attend a conference that declares a semiautonomous state in the eastern part of Libya on March 6, 2012

Libya's increasingly precarious post-Gaddafi stability was further clouded Tuesday, when a conference of tribal leaders and militia commanders unilaterally declared a semiautonomous state in the country's oil-rich east. That's unlikely to be acceptable to Libyans in the capital and throughout western Libya, who see the attempted secession of the east as little more than a grab for power and resources. The sprawling North African country has struggled to overcome the legacy of corruption and abuse — as well as the complete absence of political infrastructure and the impact of months of civil war — left by the 42-year dictatorship of Col. Muammar Gaddafi, overthrown last summer.

National unity has been the constant plea of the fragile governing National Transitional Council (NTC) as it seeks to contain the dangerous conflicts among rival militias, often based on ties of region and tribe that have filled the post-Gaddafi power vacuum. But for the easterners who met in Benghazi on Tuesday, however, the key issue is resources.

The plan hatched in Benghazi calls for a revival of the pre-Gaddafi three-state system, with Libya governed on the basis of the old Roman provinces of Tripolitania in the west, Fezzan in the southwest and Cyrenaica in the east. Cyrenaica — or Barqa in Arabic — would have its own parliament, police force, courts and capital in Benghazi, while the central government would control the national army, oil resources and foreign policy, the Associated Press reported. Delegates at the conference said its purpose was to establish independent administration, rather than create division. They explained the move as a safeguard against the sort of marginalization from Tripoli that the east had endured under Gaddafi.

For decades, Gaddafi's Tripoli-based government dispensed favors and resources on the basis of tribe and city — the lion's share going to Tripoli, Gaddafi's hometown of Sirt and other western outposts where the dictator drew his support. The east, a hotbed of opposition to Gaddafi, got brutal repression rather than patronage. In Benghazi, the country's second largest city where the rebellion first began, the difference in infrastructure compared with cities in Libya's west is palpable. Roads in some areas are little more than dirt tracks. Hospitals and schools are wanting for basic upgrades. And residents point to miles of pristine Mediterranean coastline that has seen virtually no development for tourism or commerce.

But western Libyans aren't impressed with the easterners calling for fairness through autonomy. "They view it as a separatist movement," says one Western observer in the country whose job required speaking on condition of anonymity. "Most of the oil is in the east, so they view it as dividing the country." Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, head of the NTC, accused the federalists Tuesday of being foreign-funded. "Some sister Arab nations unfortunately are supporting and financing this sedition that is happening in the east," he said at a press conference hours after the Benghazi event, according to Agence France-Presse.

Libya is set to hold national elections in June for a national assembly that will designate a new Prime Minister and draft a constitution. Last month, the NTC published the final draft of its election law, which awards 102 of the assembly's 200 seats to the west, allocating just 60 to the east. That would give the west — if acting as a bloc — the power to overrule the rest of the country in a vote. And that's likely what spurred Tuesday's move toward autonomy, says the Western observer. "They feel that if it came down to it, they wouldn't get their way in the federal state. So they've unilaterally decided that they are one," he says. The danger in this regional schism, of course, is that all of the rival claimants are well armed.

Already, the NTC is struggling to keep a lid on tensions between the hundreds of tribal- and city-affiliated militias that sprung up across the country to fight the Gaddafi regime. Tensions between cities have spilled into brief armed conflicts between militias in recent months, but the conference declaration in Benghazi may be the most brazen assertion yet of any one region's power. But it may simply be an opening gambit: the NTC could opt to address the easterners' concerns by amending the election law to strengthen their representation. And the breakaway easterners may not even have enough support on their home turf to pull off a split. Antifederalists have staged demonstrations calling for national unity in cities across the country, including Benghazi. Still, the news is an uncomfortable reminder that Libya's post-Gaddafi future remains dangerously uncertain.