Thursday, November 14, 2013

Cyrenaican Nationalists in Libya Form Regional Government, No Longer Even Pretending It’s Not about the Oil

The question of centralism vs. federalism in the new Libya, and in particular the question of whether the oil-rich east of the country, called Cyrenaica (or Barqa, in Arabic), should have its own autonomous government, has returned.  And this time the pro-home-rule Cyrenaicans seem to really mean it.  Separatist militants have even taken over oil-industry facilities, crippling the nation’s power grid.

In March of last year (as reported at the time in this blog), with Libyans still reeling from a quick European-facilitated Arab Spring revolution which eliminated their long-time dictator, Moammar al-Qaddafi, leaders in the Cyrenaica region declared that they were now an autonomous region.  The leader of the autonomists, Prince Ahmed al-Zubair al-Senussi, was a great-nephew of King Idris, a member of the Sufist “House of Senussi” which ruled Cyrenaica during its brief period of British-backed independence after the defeat of the old colonial power, Italy, in the Second World War.

Moammar al-Qaddafi
Idris stayed in power when the United Nations and the United Kingdom folded the Emirate of Cyrenaica into a United Kingdom of Libya in 1951, joining it to the former British colony of Tripolitania to the west and the vast, arid Fezzan region to the south, which had been part of French West Africa.  The 1951 constitution guaranteed strong local powers to the three regions, in a loose federation.  The new Libyan capital was officially Tripoli, capital of Tripolitania, but Idris ruled from the old Senussi family seat in Benghazi, Cyrenaica.  In 1963, King Idris centralized the government, dissolving the three autonomous regions and breaking them into smaller, less powerful provinces.  Tripolitanians regarded this as a Cyrenaican power-grab.  By 1969, Libya was seen as weak and precarious with its aging, childless monarch regarded as a British stooge beholden to European oil interests (as, arguably, he was—otherwise the British would not have installed him).  Plus, the Suez Canal crisis and, more immediately, the 1967 Arab–Israeli War had stoked unprecedented Arab nationalism, which made the Senussis look like some kind of Ottoman-era anachronism.  So an ambitious army colonel named Moammar al-Qaddafi, born in a Bedouin tent in Tripolitania, overthrew the king in 1969, kicked out foreign oil firms, and installed a petroleum-fueled socialist dictatorship which shifted power back to Tripoli.  A failed Senussi-led monarchist coup in 1970 only tightened Qaddafi’s grip on the east.

King Idris—once ruler of Cyrenaica, then of Libya
Thus, when, in 2011, it looked like the Arab Spring revolutions would come to Libya next, Cyrenaica was unsurprisingly the center of rebellion, and for quite a while during the 2011 civil war, the internationally backed transitional rebel government was based in Benghazi.  The June 2012 elections went smoothly, despite threats by Zubair’s Cyrenaica National Council and other regionalists to disrupt them.  Then, near the first anniversary of those elections, came another autonomy declaration from Zubair.  It was largely ignored, but the next developments weren’t.

Ahmed al-Zubayr al-Senussi at this year’s autonomy declaration
In July, a mostly non-political labor strike at Cyrenaican oil fields and refineries provided the occasion for more militant Cyrenaican nationalists, led by Ibraham al-Jadhran, to piggy-back their cause onto that of the oil workers and add autonomy for Cyrenaica to the strike demands.  In October, Jadhran’s Political Bureau of Cyrenaica (P.B.C.) declared the formation of a Cyrenaican government, one with no Senussis in it.  Zubair later clarified at a press conference that his own group, now called the Council of Cyrenaica in Libya (C.C.L.), had failed to find an accommodation with Jadhran and had nothing to do with the new “government”—which, incidentally, the central government in Tripoli also denounces as illegitimate.

The flag of the former Emirate of Cyrenaica
Now that the gentle, Sufist, royally-descended, and for the most part accommodationist autonomists of the C.C.L. have had the banner of Cyrenaican pride snatched from them by a more radical and better-armed militia led by Jadhran, it is not clear what the movement’s new direction will be.  Is there an Islamist component to the new provisional government?  It is not yet clear, but the fact that Benghazi has, in the post-Qaddafi era, become a breeding ground for salafist radicals who are contemptuous of the region’s Sufi heritage makes one wonder.  (This is only one part of the world where Islamists are going head to head with more moderate Sufis—and winning.  It also happened in northern Mali last year and is also the dynamic in the North Caucasus, western Saudi Arabia, and northern Somalia.)  After last year’s killing of the United States ambassador in the city, the very name Benghazi has in the U.S. at least become synonymous with the vulnerability of Western interests, and of Libya’s fragile democracy, to fundamentalist violence.

Nor is eastward the only direction in which Libya is being pulled apart.  The southern region, Fezzan, also declared an autonomous government this summer.  Fezzan is an ethnic mix of mostly non-Arabs—including Toubous who were dismissed by Qaddafi as “black Chadians” and stripped of their citizenship rights, as well as Tuaregs who were traditionally loyal to Qaddafi and who stoked a separatist Tuareg uprising in northern Mali last year which was co-opted by Algerian-based Islamist radicals and then, early this year, toppled by France’s military.  It is very unclear as yet what role Tuareg nationalists—or, even, Islamist radicals—might have in Fezzan’s emerging regionalist movement.

Cyrenaica’s coat-of-arms
The ongoing talks on a new Libyan constitution are now being boycotted not only by the Cyrenaican and Fezzani separatists but, in Tripolitania itself, by the Berber minority.  Berbers, who are in some sense the indigenous people of the North African Maghreb, are linguistically and culturally related to the Tuareg and make up about 5% of Libya’s population but a quarter of Algeria’s and 40% of Morocco’s. The mostly mountain-dwelling Berbers of Libya, who fought bravely against Qaddafi on his home turf, want Berber declared an official language and their cultural rights and autonomy enhanced.  Berber activists from the Amazigh High Council have taken over a harbor in Mellitah—in Tripolitania, along the border with Tunisia—which is crucial to Libya’s oil economy, and in particular to Italy’s energy supply.

Berbers initially celebrated the new post-Qaddafi order in Libya
Libya’s movement toward a constitutional democracy is now stalled, and its very economy is being held hostage.  So far, the ardent nationalism seems mostly to be of the regional kind, but, as we have seen in Mali, purely local regional fights can, in a power vacuum, become something else entirely.  Is this the beginning of the break-up of Libya?

Rebels fly a Berber flag at the captured Mellitah oil harbor in western Tripolitania

[You can read more about these and many other separatist and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]

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