In eastern Libya, a push for more autonomy from Tripoli
Mon Mar 5, 2012 8:04pm GMT
W* Civic leaders to hold congress to propose federal state
* Eastern Libyans complain of neglect by Tripoli rulers
* Libya's east is home to biggest oil fields
* Protest in Benghazi against autonomy initiative
By Christian Lowe and Ali Shuaib
TRIPOLI, March 5 (Reuters) - Civic leaders from Libya's eastern Cyrenaica
province will on Tuesday launch a push for regional autonomy, posing a new
challenge to the country's fragile cohesion after the overthrow of Muammar
Five thousand people are due to attend an inaugural "Congress of the People
of Cyrenaica" near the eastern city of Benghazi where they will set out a
proposal for Libya to be transformed into a federal state, one of the
"We would like in Cyrenaica to take care of housing, education and other
things and would delegate national security, defence ... to the central
government," said Mohammed Buisier, a Libyan-American who is helping
organise the congress.
"We believe in one Libya," he told Reuters by telephone from Benghazi,
cradle of the revolution against Gaddafi last year.
"People in Cyrenaica have for 40 years suffered from negligence ... If we
keep this negligence towards the east, I cannot guarantee that Libya will be
united in 25 years time."
Any moves for greater autonomy for eastern Libya could unsettle the central
government, and foreign oil firms, because the bulk of Libya's oil reserves
are in Cyrenaica and its biggest state oil company is based in Benghazi.
It was not clear how many in eastern Libya support the initiative.
Several thousand people marched to Benghazi's courthouse on Monday night to
express their opposition. The protesters chanted: "Libya is united!" and "Do
not break up Libya!"
Abdullah Bin Idriss, a member of the local council in the town of Jalu,
eastern Libya, said he was opposed to the idea. He said some of the
pipelines that pump crude to the east's oil terminals flow through his
district. If Benghazi declares autonomy, he told Reuters, "We will turn off
For about 10 years after it became an independent state in 1951, Libya was
run along federal lines, with power devolved to Cyrenaica, the southern
province of Fezzan, and Tripolitania in the west of the country.
Libya centralised its government in the last years of the rule of King
Idris, and Gaddafi accelerated the process when he came to power in a
military coup in 1969.
Since Gaddafi's 42-year rule ended, calls for federal rule have become more
vocal. They have been fuelled by long-standing complaints in the east that
it has not been given a fair share of Libya's wealth, and by the weakness of
the central government which took over after Gaddafi's overthrow.
Mohammed al-Harizi, a spokesman for the National Transitional Council (NTC),
Libya's interim leadership, said people were free to lobby for regional
But he said: "This is not the vision of the NTC ... and I am sure that the
Libyan people, as a whole, do not support this idea."
The organiser of the Cyrenaica congress said there were no plans to
unilaterally declare autonomy from the rest of Libya. He said delegates
would be "putting on the table" their proposal, and would use peaceful means
to press their case.
The idea of more autonomy could tap into discontent in Benghazi about the
shortcomings of the NTC . Some people accuse it of being too slow to restore
public services and of a lack of transparency in how it spends revenues from
NTC chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who is himself from the east, in January had
to seek refuge from bottle-throwing protesters who stormed the council's
Buisier said the first steps would be to create a 300-member "High Council
for Cyrenaica" and to lobby for Cyrenaica to be given more representation in
an election, scheduled for June, to choose a new national assembly.
Asked if the province would take unilateral action if the central government
blocked its plan for a federal state, he said: "I do not want to visit this.
We will see."
The revolt against Gaddafi's rule began in Benghazi on Feb. 17 last year,
when government troops fired on residents protesting against poverty,
official neglect and repression. Until the revolt reached Tripoli, Benghazi
was the headquarters of the anti-Gaddafi rebellion.
The proposal to give Cyrenaica autonomy is viewed with unease by many people
in Tripoli, who believe it risks leading to the break-up of Libya.
"Unity is a red line and it is not up for discussion," said Abbas al-Gadi,
deputy head of the Libyan National Party, which will compete in the June
* Gathering in east Libya says will run own affairs
* East is home to Libya's biggest oil fields
* People in region complain of neglect by Tripoli
* NTC leader says autonomy bid could wreck Libya (Updates with protest in
By Issam Fetouri
BENGHAZI, Libya, March 6 (Reuters) - Delegates announced plans for greater
autonomy on Tuesday in the Libyan city of Benghazi, prompting an immediate
warning from the central government of a foreign-inspired plot to break up
About 3,000 delegates in the eastern city announced they were setting up a
council to run Cyrenaica, the province which is home to Libya's biggest oil
fields, in defiance of the government in Tripoli.
The declaration tapped into longstanding unhappiness in the east of Libya at
what it regards as neglect and marginalisation by the rulers in the capital,
more than 1,000 km (620 miles) to the west.
It deepened the troubles of the National Transitional Council (NTC), the
body internationally recognised as Libya's leadership after last year's
rebellion ousted Muammar Gaddafi. The NTC is already struggling to assert
its authority over militias and towns which pay little heed to Tripoli.
"I regret to say that these (foreign) countries have financed and supported
this plot that has arisen in the east," NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil
"I call on my brothers, the Libyan people, to be aware and alert to the
conspiracies that are being plotted against them and to be aware that some
people are dragging the country back down into a deep pit."
Moves towards greater autonomy for Cyrenaica -- the birth-place of the
anti-Gaddafi revolt -- may worry international oil companies operating in
Libya because it raises the prospect of them having to re-negotiate their
contracts with a new entity.
A member of staff who answered the phone at Benghazi-based Arabian Gulf Oil
Company (Agoco), Libya's biggest state-owned oil firm, said the 3,000
employees had been deliberating about whether or not to back the autonomy
"Some people are in favour and some people are against but there is no
official stance yet," the Agoco employee said.
Several hundred people gathered in Benghazi on Tuesday night to protest
against the push for autonomy. They carried placards saying: "No to
The congress in Benghazi named Ahmed al-Senussi, a relative of Libya's
former king and a political prisoner under Gaddafi, as leader of the
self-declared Cyrenaica Transitional Council.
An eight-point declaration said the "Cyrenaica Provincial Council is hereby
established ... to administer the affairs of the province and protect the
rights of its people".
It said, though, that it accepted the NTC as "the country's symbol of unity
and its legitimate representative in international arenas."
The declaration in Benghazi does not carry legal force. It was not clear if
the Cyrenaica council would operate within the framework of the NTC, or as a
rival to it.
One analyst said the congress in Benghazi would change little on the ground.
"Today's statement from Benghazi was more a declaration by a group in favour
of a high degree of autonomy, rather than a declaration of that autonomy
itself," said Alex Warren, a director of Frontier, a Middle East and North
"In reality, Libya is now effectively composed of many de facto
self-governing towns and cities, overseen by a weak central authority," he
"The process of integrating these into a new political and economic
structure will be volatile ... but I don't necessarily see it as the spark
for any major civil conflict."
Cyrenaica stretches westwards from the Egyptian border to the Sirte,
half-way along Libya's Mediterranean coastline.
The province enjoyed prestige and power under King Idris, Libya's
post-independence ruler, because the royal family's powerbase was in the
But when the king was toppled by Gaddafi in a military coup in 1969, eastern
Libya was sidelined for the next four decades. Residents complain that they
have been denied a fair share of the country's oil wealth.
The rebellion last year which overthrew Gaddafi gave new impetus to calls
for local self-determination in the east. These became even more vocal as
frustration grew with the slow pace at which the new leadership in Tripoli
was restoring order and public services after the revolt.
Some Libyans have dismissed the moves for autonomy in eastern Libya as a
ploy by a coterie of wealthy families who had prospered under the old
monarchy. (Additional reporting by Ali Shuaib, Christian Lowe and Hisham El
Dani in Tripoli; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Michael Roddy)
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Received on Tue Mar 06 2012 - 16:36:21 EST