By Essam Mohamed
Tribal and political leaders declared Libya’s oil-rich eastern region of Cyrenaica as autonomous on Tuesday (March 6th), raising fears the country may break up in the wake of Moamer Kadhafi’s downfall.
At a conference attended by about 3,000 people in Benghazi, the major eastern city and cradle of an eight-month uprising against Kadhafi that ended in his capture and killing, they also called for a return to federalism in Libya.
“A federal system is the choice of the region” of Cyrenaica, which stretches from the central coastal city of Sirte to the Egyptian border in the east, the leaders said in a joint statement.
The move came after protestors rallied Monday in Tripoli in support of a unified Libya.
Libyan leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil said Monday that calls for a federal system would constitute a throwback to the monarchic era.
“Libyans fought for a united Libya so these clamours will be of no consequence,” AFP quoted him as saying.
Demonstrators held up a number of slogans denouncing federalism and demanding that the armed groups belonging to rebel brigades leave state institutions. Banners read, “No to armed militias, no to federalism, no to marginalisation”.
“We, the voice of the masses, the voice of Libya, announce that we will not let the blood of our martyrs, who sacrificed their lives for the unity of this country, go to waste,” the statement read. The paper went on to say that people were willing to sacrifice themselves to keep Libya united, just as many sacrificed themselves to free Libya from the dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
The statement denounced the division of Libya, including under a federalist system. “Libya is one nation and we will not have it any other way,” it said.
It also condemned attempts to destabilise Libya through the presence of outlawed armed groups, which the statement ordered out of buildings and institutions that must be handed over to the Libyan government, so as to build a civil nation that does not rely on arms for power.
Interim Prime Minister Abdurrahim El Keib opposed the federalist option, saying that suggestions about Libya’s future should be related to development, not division. El Keib added that the king was the one who rejected federalism and adopted the unification.
“The government is now in the process of establishing an office in Benghazi and Sebha,” El Keib said, urging the Central Bank to begin operations in the two cities.
He also called for diplomatic consulates in other Libyan cities and demanded that airports resume their operations.
“The Ministry of Local Government is currently working on the provinces and municipalities system. The project was presented to the Council of Ministers and will depend on the government. It will be posted on the government page for people to give feedback on, then it will be referred to the Transitional Council, then to the people,” he added.
Salah El Tagdi, representing one of the civil society organisations in the protests said, “We are here to protest against all those who are out to exploit the sacrifices of martyred Libyans…. Libya has recognized the Transitional Council and so we must all support it. Going against it is going against the state.”
El Tagdi added that the objective of the protest is to promote the control of the state over crossing points, airports and vital institutions in the state and to denounce federalism.
On the other hand, Mohamed Shelbik, a banker taking part in the protest, said he was “against federalism, which is a prelude to division and to the return of tribal leaders ruling Libya. After the state reverted to democracy, they lost their role and their power. They are now trying to regain what they had through federalism. We want a civil state. The constitution must ensure equal rights. Parties must be elected based on their agendas, not individuals.”
Salem El Kalmoudi, another bystander, said that federalism was previously applied in Libya. People of all classes and categories agreed that it was not favourable. In 1963, it was revoked, and instead the country was divided into governorates.
“What matters now is that people in all provinces have access to all services,” El Kalmoudi said. He urged people to have patience until the state is built and a referendum held.