Issue No.1161, 22 August, 2013      21-08-2013 02:05PM ET

Libya: mounting divisions

With upheaval in neighbouring Egypt producing ripples in Libya, Tripoli faces fresh political divisions while Cyrenaica moves further towards formal autonomy, writes Kamel Abdallah

Libya: mounting divisions
A damaged car is seen outside the Egyptian consulate building following a blast in Benghazi on Sunday
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Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan announced this week that he had reached understandings with the General National Council (GNC), the highest constitutional authority in the country, over the formation of a miniature crisis cabinet to contend with the deteriorating security situation in the country. Its members will consist of the ministers of interior, defence, foreign affairs, finance and the military chiefs-of-staff.

Yet, in another possible blow to the coalition government headed by Zeidan, which has been plagued by mounting fissures since a number of political forces moved to freeze their membership in the GNC and to instruct their members in government to function in a merely technocratic capacity, Minister of Interior Mohamed Al-Sheikh was rumoured to have submitted his resignation to the GNC on Sunday, 18 August. According to sources from the GNC with whom Al-Ahram Weekly spoke by phone, the minister’s decision was motivated by differences between him and Zeidan and some members of the GNC over measures taken to boost security agencies and recent appointments in these agencies. Until the moment of writing, neither the GNC nor Al-Sheikh had issued an official statement to confirm or deny the resignation. The Weekly attempted to contact Al-Sheikh by phone, but his mobile was switched off.

Some time before this, the liberal National Forces Alliance had announced that it had frozen its political activities and that all its offices and branches had suspended work. The leader of this parliamentary bloc, Tawfik Al-Shoheibi, wrote on his Facebook page: “The decision [to do this] was taken by the steering committee following consultations with the bloc’s members in parliament and the government. The chief reason for this step was to respond to the demands of the Libyan street that political parties freeze their activities until after the constitution is promulgated... [Accordingly], every member in the GNC or the government may take his own decision to continue or to resign... As of this moment they are independent and unaffiliated with any political entity.”

The same step was announced by the Justice and Construction Party, the political wing of the Libyan chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood, again in response to mounting public anger against the political parties, which are widely perceived as the chief cause of the country’s current political crisis.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian consulate in Benghazi was rocked Saturday by the detonation of a packet of explosives that had been placed in front of the consulate. The explosion caused only minor damage, primarily the destruction of the main door of the building. It was the third attack against the consulate since the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime.

Libyan security sources speaking to the Weekly from Benghazi said that they were able to learn some information about the perpetrators of the attack from the surveillance cameras around the consulate, which is located in the West Foweihat district of Libya’s second largest city. A black jeep carrying two people drove up in front of the consulate. One of them got out of the vehicle and placed the package, which weighed 2-2.5 kilogrammes, in front of the building. The package detonated within seconds after the vehicle drove off. According to the sources, cameras did not capture images of the men’s faces as they had kept their heads down throughout, indicating that they were aware of the placement of surveillance cameras.

An Egyptian consular official in Benghazi told the Weekly that the consulate had resumed work as normal the following day (Sunday). He stressed that the attack against the consulate would not affect relations that bind the Libyan and Egyptian people, describing the attack as a cowardly act that sought to undermine deep and solid ties between Libya and Egypt.

Since the events of 30 June 2013 in Egypt, with respect to which official Libyan opinion has voiced conflicting views, tensions and violence in Libya have soared, especially in Benghazi, which is located in the region of Cyrenaica, adjacent to the Libyan border with Egypt. Major incidents include the attack on Al-Koeifiya prison, the largest prison in the east, leading to the escape of all its inmates, and the attack on the psychiatric hospital in Benghazi’s Al-Hawari district, leading to the release of all its patients.

So far, according to Libyan security authorities, the Libyan police have only been able to apprehend 120 of the 1,200 escaped prison inmates. The 120 inmates had been serving light sentences, or their prison terms were nearing an end and they turned themselves in voluntarily.

In addition, many assassinations have been carried out against security officers and some political activists. Libyans were particularly shocked by the assassination of the prominent lawyer and political activist Idriss Al-Mesmari, who was gunned down when he emerged from a mosque after performing Friday prayers on 26 July. There have also been a number of attempted assassinations.

Other parts of eastern Libya are gripped by instability and security breakdown, especially the city of Derna. Located in the Jebel Al-Akhdar region, 350 kilometres east of Benghazi, this city has become notorious as a jihadist stronghold and has been the site of more than 65 political assassinations. The official security presence is sparse in this city in which is located Libya’s largest camps of jihadist militants. The most frequent victims of assassinations and assassination attempts at the hands of these extremists are the security officials appointed by Derna’s interim municipal government.

As part of the government’s efforts to stem the deteriorating state of security in Libya, the GNC this week discussed a memorandum from the GNC’s committee on oversight agencies regarding appointments to the position of director and deputy director of the Administrative Oversight Agency as well as the transitional justice bill that a large segment of Libyan opinion believes is long overdue. GNC sources interviewed by the Weekly had mentioned on numerous occasions that parliamentary discussion of the transitional justice bill had been put on a back burner in order to give priority to the political isolation law at a time of widespread demonstrations calling for the speedy implementation of this law.

Back in trouble-ridden Cyrenaica, the call for a federal system received renewed impetus last week. On Saturday, proponents of this system issued a third declaration proclaiming Cyrenaica a fully autonomous federal region, defined by its historic borders, within the framework of the Libyan state while fully respecting the established international boundaries of this state. The integral unity of this state would be preserved within the framework of a federation based on a federal system the foundations, form and principles of which would be established through dialogue among its participants. The declaration further stated that Islamic Sharia would be the source of legislation and all legislation that violates the principles of Islamic Sharia would be regarded as null and void. In addition, this declaration included, for the first time, a call for the creation of a Cyrenaica Defence Force tasked with protecting and safeguarding the security of the region and for the creation of a political bureau that would administer the region and oversee its governing institutions.

According to the declaration, Ibrahim Jadran is to be delegated the powers of president of the political bureau while the bureau itself will nominate the members of the executive council, following consultations with local notables. The executive council will be responsible for administering regional government institutions and agencies. In like manner, the political bureau will nominate a Shura Council for the region and empower the judiciary to perform its independent role. The foregoing measures would constitute an interim phase, stated the declaration which concluded with a reaffirmation of Cyrenaica’s commitment to all international charters and to the right of the other regions to a share in its sources of wealth.

Officials in the interim government in Tripoli and the GNC have yet to issue formal reactions to this latest declaration of Cyrenaica’s regional autonomy. Nevertheless, the second such declaration, in June, was greeted by numerous official statements calling on Cyrenaica’s federalists to retract this step. The first such declaration was issued in March 2012.

The third declaration is clearly a form of escalation, especially given the precedent of the provisions calling for the creation of a regional political bureau, Shura Council and military force. It is not difficult to predict heightened tensions over this issue with central authorities in Tripoli in the forthcoming days.

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