Libya Fragmentation Looms as South Debates Autonomy

Tribal leaders in southwestern Fezzan accuse the central government of failing their region.

An oasis town in Fezzan, Libya, November 2010
An oasis town in Fezzan, Libya, November 2010 (Wikimedia Commons/Franzfoto)

Libyan tribal leaders met in the oasis town of Ubari on Thursday to discuss declaring autonomy for the southwestern region Fezzan. Earlier, local leaders in the eastern provinces also pushed for increased autonomy from Tripoli. Since the fall of dictator Muammar Gaddafi, the country seems be disintegrating along regional lines.

Media reports vary on what exactly was discussed in Ubari. Local sources denied to Libya Herald, a website launched last year, that tribal leaders had declared autonomy yet although they put out a statement which said they were responding to the Tripoli legislature’s “poor performance and inability of the government to meet public demands, especially in the Fezzan region.”

The statement also said that a “Fezzan Supreme Council” would appoint a military governor to defend the region’s borders as well as its natural resources, which include oil and water.

Since Gaddafi’s regime was overthrown in late 2011, control in the southwest has been divided among the region’s three main ethnic groups — Arabs, Toubous and Tuaregs. The latter two live in the desert regions bordering Algeria, Chad and Niger. Especially the Tuaregs, who also live in nearby Mali, feel they are discriminated against by the Arabs.

The interim government in Tripoli seems to have limited influence on events in Fezzan. Its ability to police areas outside the major cities in the northwest is hampered by militias that were formed two years ago to fight Gaddafi’s forces but still control large parts of the country.

The government’s authority is further undermined by infighting between the somewhat liberal National Forces Alliance, led by wartime prime minister Mahmoud Jibril, and the Islamists. Neither commands a majority although Jibril’s party won almost 50 percent of the votes in an election last year.

The National Forces Alliance is most popular in the northwest, or Tripolitania, which is Jibril’s Warfalla tribe’s home region. In the east, or Cyrenaica, the region that first freed itself from Gaddafi’s regime in early 2011, there has been mounting apprehension about what is seen there as a powergrab on Tripolitania’s part.

Tribal leaders and militia commanders gathered in Benghazi last year to declare autonomy for Cyrenaica, a move that was condemned by Libya’s interim leaders who feared it would lead to the breakup of the country.

Cyrenaica has reason to be suspicious of central rule. It was only joined with Tripolitania by the Italians in the 1930s who revived the classical name “Libya” to describe their colony. After independence, Benghazi became the home of the Libyan monarchy. Before Gaddafi took over in 1969, the country was run along federal lines with each of the three regions enjoying a high degree of autonomy. The east was neglected by Gaddafi’s regime, however, himself an westerner, who prioritized economic development around the new capital, Tripoli.

The collapse of the Libyan state could imperil energy supplies. The east has the biggest oilfields. Its Arabian Gulf Oil Corporation, now a subsidiary of the national oil company, pumps more than 300,000 barrels of petroleum per day, or half Libya’s current production.

Fragmentation could also create a haven for drugs and weapons smugglers as well as militant Islamists who have been using the desert south of Libya as a transit route and staging ground for attacks. The continued movement of criminals and terrorists across the whole of the Maghreb’s porous borders suggests a regionwide insurgency that weak governments there, many of them recovering from internal conflicts, are unable to contain.

Foreign military intervention might not help. It was NATO’s support for the Libyan uprising that pushed Tuareg soldiers who had been employed by Gaddafi’s army south into Mali where they joined a local and Islamist uprising — prompting France to intervene there as well to save the civilian government.