Libya: Cyrenaica “federalists” block oil terminals

With elections underway in Libya, “federalists” demanding a greater share of power in the east of the country are blocking roads and oil terminals to enforce their call for a boycott. A helicopter carrying election materials was shot at, and an official from the High National Electoral Council (HNEC) who had been onboard was killed near Benghazi. Polling stations in Brega and Ajdabiyah were unable to open due to the incident. The federalists are demanding an equal distribution of National Assembly seats between Libya’s three historic provinces of Barqa, Fezzan and Tripolitania. The current allocation of seats gives Tripolitania—where more than half of Libyans live—109 seats in the 200-member body. The three regions appear to be based on the Ottoman-era administrative divisions, with the name Cyrenaica changed to Barqa—probably to de-emphasize Cyrenaica’s status as a self-governing territory at various times in Libya’s history. (See map.)

The family of the slain electoral worker appeared on television to say that they hold federalist leaders responsible. Federalist leader Ziad Edghim issued a statement in response, condemning the incident and offering his condolences to the family. He maintained that federalists would seek to stop the elections, but using peaceful means. However, a group calling itself the Barqa Council has positioned militia forces in the Red Valley area on the outskirts of Sirte, on Barqa’s western borders, erecting roadblocks and halting traffic.

Unarmed protesters are meanwhile occupying the oil terminals at Es-Sider, Ras Lanuf and Brega, virtually shutting down exports. The oilfields of Nafora, Amal and Wantar Chell are also under occupation, bringing production there to a halt. The disruption comes after Libya had brought oil production back up nearly to pre-war levels, with the main Zawiya oil refinery outside Tripoli operating at full capacity. BP has resumed oil exploration work, and oil shipments have been leaving daily to Italy, France, Germany and other countries.

There are 142 parties fielding 1,206 candidates in the election, with 80 out of 200 seats in the assembly allocated to party representatives and the rest to independents. One of the main contenders is the Justice and Construction party, linked to the Muslim Brotherhood. Other prominent parties include former prime minister Mahmoud Jibril’s secular Alliance of National Forces, former jihadist rebel Abdel-Hakim Belhaj‘s al-Watan; and the Qaddafi-era opposition National Front for the Salvation of Libya.

Elhabib Alamin, a well-known poet and official with the Ministry of Culture, had words of warning for Libya’s democratic prospects. “The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq didn’t result in improvements for the people of those countries,” he told Germany’s Deutsche Welle. “I think some leaders here in Libya are trying to get Western backing to become the next Hamid Karzai. I don’t want Libya to become an ATM for Western oil companies while they abandon the people of the country.” (North Africa United, Tripoli Post, Libya Herald, AP, July 7; AlJazeera, Reuters, July 6; The National, UAE, July 5; Algeria ISP, July 3; DW, June 25)

See our last posts on Libya and the struggle for control of oil.

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  1. Whither Cyrenaica?
    The history of autonomous Cyrenaica is especially critical given all the annoying calls from beyond its borders for the Balkanization of Libya. Contrary to the misinformation on Wikipedia, Cyrenaica, Fezzan and Tripolitania were not separate provinces (vilayats) under the Ottomans. If you consult a real encyclopedia, e.g. the Encyclopedia Britannica, you will find that all three were divisions within the vilayat of Tripolitania. These internal administrative divisions were sanjaqs, which had no governor. The eastern one, called at various times Benghazi or Cyrenaica, has nonetheless played a distinct role in the country’s history.

    It was Cyrenaica that first came under Ottoman rule, when the Turks conquered Egypt in 1517. Before that, Cyrenaica had been under the desultory quasi-rule of Egypt’s Mamluks. Tripolitania was meanwhile under the rule of the Knights of Malta, who had been installed by a Spanish intervention in 1510. (Before that, Tripoli was ruled by the declining Hafsids of Tunis, who themselves had broken off from the declining Almohades of Morocco.) In 1551, the Turks drove out the Knights of Malta, establishing an eyalet of Tripolitania while continuing to govern Cyrenaica from Egypt. Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were united—and Libya took its contemporary shape—when the Karamanli dynasty usurped power in Tripoli and established itself as an autonomous Ottoman dependency in 1710. The Karamanlis conquered Cyrenaica in the east and Fezzan in the south, ruling them from Tripoli. (In the US intervention of 1805, an army of Marines and local mercenaries invaded Cyrenaica from Egypt and briefly held Derna.) The Ottomans’ ouster of the Karamanlis in 1864 came with a reorganization of the empire’s administrative divisions, with the eyalets, which were basically chieftaincies, replaced by vilayats, under governors appointed by Constantinople. It was at this time that the one-vilayet, three-sanjaq system of Libya was established.

    This three-division system was kept when Italy took over in 1911, governing from Tripoli. Cyrenaica was the heartland of the resistance movement led by the Sanussi Order of sufis in World War I (First Italo-Sanussi War) and the 1920s (Second Italo-Sanussi War), and kept alive by Omar al-Mukhtar until his execution in 1931. In 1941, the British invaded from Egypt and seized Cyrenaica—part of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s famous drive against the Nazi general Erwin “Desert Fox” Rommel. Cyrenaica changed hands repeatedly in tank battles that swept back and forth across the desert, but by the end of ’42 the British had firm control there and were grooming chieftain Idris Senussi as post-independence king. The following year, as the British advanced on Tripoli from Cyrenaica in the east, a (mostly African) Free French force under Gen. Jacques-Philippe Leclerc advanced from Fezzan in the south (which it had already taken via Chad). The British got there first, establishing an occupation. After the war, the Brits and French entered into secret negotiations with Italy over the future of Libya. Under the resulting “Bevin-Sforza agreement,” Cyrenaica was to be a British protectorate, Fezzan a French one, and Tripolitania would be returned to Rome. When this was presented to the UN in 1949, it sparked riots in Tripoli, and diplomatic outrage from the Soviets and Arabs, scuttling the plan.

    Instead, a UN resolution called for Libyan unity; in fact, Fezzan was under French occupation, Tripolitania under British, and Cyrenaica a British-backed autonomous quasi-state ruled in name by Idris. Not surprisingly, with independence in 1951, a federal system was adopted and the three-division model maintained—despite huge protests in Tripoli demanding a unified state. While the capital remained at Tripoli, Cyrenaica was especially privileged. King Idris had his own praetorian guard, the Cyrenaica Defense Force (CYDEF), separate from the army. In 1963, the federal system was abandoned and the three provinces broken up into 10 muhafazats or districts—actually, the beginning of a trend towards greater centralization, by weakening the localities. This reflected the growing influence of Nasserites and Arab nationalists within the army. With Moammar Qaddafi’s coup in 1969, CYDEF resisted to the end, and was finally crushed. Cyrenaica, of course, was its last hold-out (although by then an informal region rather than a de jure entity). Qaddafi, again not surprisingly, continued the trend towards centralization by breaking the country up into still more districts, which he renamed shabiyats, eventually totaling 26. The new TNC government has, once again hardly surprisingly, revived the three-division model—but stopped short of returning to a federal system (precipitating the current crisis). (See Statoids website.)

    Two final, slightly ironic observations. First, the earliest division between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica was in ancient times, when what would become the former was under the Phoenicians, and the latter a Greek outpost. The division re-emerged when the Roman empire split in the fourth century CE, with Tripolitania remaining under Rome’s rule and Cyrenaica falling under the Greek Byzantines. (Tripoli is a Latin name, the “three cities” being the old Phoenician outposts of Oea, Sabrata and Leptis Magna; Cyrenaica is a much older Greek name.) Note that this same border between the Eastern and Western empires is also the basis for that between Serbia and Croatia—a division which has certainly occasioned much bloodshed over the past century.

    Second, the name of the country itself (adopted upon independence) comes from the Lebu people who were there for countless centuries before the Arabs, who ruled over Egypt during the 22nd and 23rd dynasties (945-725 BCE), and who are still in Libya today under the name of the Amazigh or Berbers, mostly in the Nafusa mountains in the west of Tripolitania. In all the centuries of rivalry between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, they have always got the short end of the stick, and are now calling for a unified state with both Arabic and Berber as official languages, and rejecting political parties formed around regional or ethnic identity.