Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 April 2012
Issue No. 1092
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A federated Barqa?

The danger of secession of the oil-rich eastern Libya threatens not only the rest of Libya, but Egypt, says Hassan Al-Qashawi

Click to view caption
A fighter prepares to use his RPG during clashes between rival militias in the southern Libyan city of Sabha

The declaration by a group of tribal and political leaders in eastern Libya of the establishment of an autonomous region in Barqa stirred considerable anxiety throughout the region, especially in neighbouring Egypt. It also cast a shadow over the Arab revolutions as a whole, as it heightened suspicions that the "Arab spring" was actually a conspiracy to further fragment the Arab world. Consequently, it strengthened the hand of repressive regimes such as the Baathist government in Damascus, which has warned that if it falls Syria, too, will disintegrate as a country.

What is particularly ominous about the Barqa autonomy drive is that the Libyan population is one of the most homogenous in the Arab world. There are no major religious or ethnic minorities, apart from relatively small numbers of Amazigh (Berber-speaking peoples) in the western mountains and African Tuarig and Toubou in the south.

For Egypt, already reeling under immense internal difficulties and tensions, the potential danger of this drive resides in the fact Egypt shares a more than 1,000km long border with Barqa as well as overlapping tribal affiliations between that Libyan region and Marsa Matrouh on the Egyptian side. In addition to the cross-border tribal affiliations and their legitimate commercial interactions, there is also a thriving smuggling industry.

Furthermore, the Barqa question could also stir contention between Libya and Egypt over the borders, themselves, as they were drawn up by colonial powers in the early 20th century and rejected by a portion of the people in that region. Should Egypt object to the secession of Barqa, it is possible that a Barqa people's movement could fabricate crises with Egypt to compound the difficulties Cairo may already expect to face with Tripoli.

Before assessing the extent of the danger that might arise from a federated Barqa, we should first determine how strong this drive actually is in that region that accounts for a half of Libya's land area, a third of its populace and two-thirds of its oil.

The Barqa federal project seems to stem from a mixture of concrete and fabricate factors. In spite of the exceptional demographic homogeneity of the Libyan people mentioned above, there have always existed latent sources of division on a tribal or regional basis. The tribal differences are a product of Libya's Bedouin society; however, this is offset by the fact that while certain tribes may be said to be largely concentrated in the east or west, ultimately tribal divisions do not conform with regional ones. As for the latter, they originate in the fact that for most of Libya's long history the country has lacked a central and centralising state. For centuries, Libya had been more in the nature of a transitional region between the Maghreb and the Mashreq. For a considerable part of this history, control over Libya alternated between the rulers of Egypt and of Tunisia, with intervals in which it was divided between the two. Nevertheless, this did not preclude the emergence of a Libyan identity, somewhere between the Maghreb and the Mashreq identities. This identity grew more distinct in the Islamic era when the admixture of Arab and Amazigh peoples gave rise to the North African country that was the most influenced by the Levant and by Egypt, in particular. This era also transformed Libya into the Maghreb country that was the most influenced by Arab Bedouin culture, which in large measure is due the country's predominantly desert environment. Yet, while the desert environment may have worked to unite a society culturally, it was simultaneously one of the foremost obstacles to political and economic unity due to low population density and the lack of the resources necessary to establish a central state.

In more recent times, the socio-religious resistance worked against foreign occupation. The Libyan national and Arab nationalist movements, and finally the discovery of oil, combined with the country's religious and ethnic homogeneity as forces of cohesion that outweighed the above-mentioned forces of division.

Although the Gaddafi regime succeeded in consolidating the unity of Libya after the preceding monarchy had succeeded in centralising the state, Gaddafi's repressive practices and his marginalisation of the eastern part of the country transformed Barqa into a permanent stronghold of the opposition and heightened the historic sensitivities between the two halves of the country. Under Gaddafi, the people in the eastern half increasingly came to feel that, in spite of the fact that they led the resistance against Italian colonialism and that most of the country's oil is to be found there, the fruits of development and progress were destined for the western part and, in particular, Tripoli, Sirte and Sabha.

In the wake of the success of the Libyan revolution, the most serious threat to the country's territorial integrity was the breakup of the Libyan army. Not only did this strengthen the likelihood of Barqa's secession it also raised the spectre of a repetition of the Somali experience. Somalia is the most ethnically and religiously homogeneous country in Africa. Yet when the central government and army collapsed, it was plunged into unparalleled chaos and fragmentation.

True, Libya has an advantage that Somalia lacks: huge petroleum resources which could promote the rapid and robust reconstruction of the state and its army. Unfortunately, there is a missing link. This is to be found in the position of the international community and the Arab League. These were quick to furnish all conceivable support in the interests of toppling the Gaddafi regime but very slow in lending the necessary assistance to Libya's transitional council to rebuild the institutions of the state and the army. Above all, it is odd that the international arms boycott on Libya is still in effect after the fall of Gaddafi. What this suggests is that the West seeks to ensure that Libya remains weak and divided which, in turn, raises the legitimate suspicion that the West was keen to help topple Arab regimes but less than enthusiastic when it came to helping these countries rebuild. One cannot help but to be reminded of the West's enthusiasm for democratic elections in Palestine and its sudden rejection of the process when the polls produced a Hamas victory.

If there are objective circumstances that might encourage the federal option, it is also fed by personal and tribal interests. Prime among these are the ambitions of Sheikh Ahmed Al-Zobeir Al-Sherif Al-Senousi, cousin of the late Libyan monarch Idris Al-Senousi and nephew of the late queen Fatma Al-Sherif. Sheikh Ahmed Al-Senousi was arrested by Gaddafi after staging an attempted coup in the 1970s, and he remained in prison until he was granted amnesty in 2001. Last year, he was one of the winners of the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought awarded annually by the European Parliament.

Observers of the Libyan situation are aware of the personal and family motives of Ahmed Al-Senousi who has refused to respond directly to the question as to whether he plans to restore the monarchy. All he has said so far is that it is up to the Libyan people, themselves, to choose whether they want a monarchy, a republic or even a jamahiriya, as Gaddafi had termed his system.

He also denies that he or any of his supporters seek the secession of Barqa. At the same time, however, he has not responded to critics of his declaration of Barqa as an autonomous federal entity without first having obtained the approval of the people of the east. All local government agencies in Barqa remain loyal to the interim national council and its leadership; indeed, perhaps more so than their counterparts in the area in the west neighbouring Tripoli.

Other political and tribal leaders are also pursuing their narrow personal or family interests. Although these had led many of them to support Gaddafi before the revolution, many of these leaders now feel that the federal option is more advantageous to them than the modern democratic state. In the latter, the revolutionary youth and Islamist, national and liberal forces would play the chief roles, whereas partition would allow traditional leaders to prevail.

The remnants of the Gaddafi regime are a chief agent behind the federal drive which they believe will end the revolutionary surge opposed to the legacy of the former regime and, therefore, strengthen their position. (One recalls that the remnants of Egypt's now disbanded National Democratic Party in Upper Egypt threatened to launch a secession drive if they were banned from running in the last parliamentary elections.)

The federalist drive is not without its supporters from among the Libyan intelligentsia who are influenced by Western and, especially, American ideas about the federal system. To these intellectuals, this system offers a solution to the marginalisation and exclusion that the eastern provinces had suffered under Gaddafi. It is a rational and idealistic solution, but it does not take into account historical circumstances and a certain Arab phobia toward the word "federalism". Nor do its advocates appreciate the fact that the notion is intrinsically linked with modernist concepts such as the nation state, the rule of law, and the state's monopoly on arms. Moreover, the federal option is more appropriate for a country such as the US, which is geographically large and has a large and ethnically diverse population.

The mufti of Libya was correct when he said that it would be a grave mistake to draw an analogy between Libya and the US. "They are not at all the same; neither in terms of geography nor in terms of population. The distance between some US cities and others takes six hours by plane to cross and the population of the US is about the same as that of the entire Arab world. Now, if we were to call for federated states under a central government for the whole of the Arab world from Rabat to Abu Dhabi, that would be a more appropriate analogy."

In fact, there are many influential political forces in the east opposed to the federal option. Foremost among them are the revolutionary youth who spearheaded the revolution and who are more ardent and more organised than their Egyptian counterparts, and who paid a far heavier price than the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square. The Islamists and the Libyan chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, in particular, are also strongly opposed to the federal idea. A movement that champions the unification of the Muslim people is hardly likely to accept the partition of a component of the Muslim nation. On the other hand, this would not necessarily apply to the most radical of the Islamist movements. They too dream of the unity of the Islamic nation, but given that they subscribe to ideas akin to those of Al-Qaeda, they would be willing to sacrifice the territorial integrity of an Arab country for the sake of realising "Islamic purity" in a portion of it. In other words, they would advocate secession in order to create their ideal of an Islamic emirate.

The more secularist liberal and Arab nationalist movements may not have a particularly strong presence in Libya but at least the weight they do possess would be pitted behind continued national unity. In general, these groups are naturally opposed to federation and decentralisation in the Arab world.

More importantly, most of the local ruling forces in the municipal councils in eastern Libya and in Benghazi in particular, and most of the armed revolutionary forces that were incorporated into the ministries of defence and interior, are also strongly opposed to the federal option at present. This is not the right time for such a controversy, they maintain and they have reaffirmed their commitment to the leadership of the interim national council, headed by Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, a native of the eastern town of Bayda.

In the final analysis, the circumstances and public opinion, at present, weigh more heavily against federalism than for it. However, the longer the state remains weak against a backdrop of Western complicity and Arab ignorance, the more the federalist option will have an opportunity to acquire momentum, and not just in the eastern portion of the country. Egypt, as the Arab country with the most to lose in the event of the fragmentation of Libya should, therefore, act quickly to lend assistance to the transitional Libyan government and its efforts to rebuild the army and the police force and to lay the foundations for a democratic Libyan state. In so doing, it would be continuing the tradition it has followed for decades in supporting the independent Arab state.

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