Tribal leaders and militia commanders declared the oil rich east of Libya a semiautonomous state on Tuesday, a unilateral move that was condemned as a foreign “conspiracy” by the North African country’s interim leadership.
Thousands of representatives of major tribes and militias along with politicians made the declaration at a conference in the main eastern city of Benghazi which was the hotbed of resistance against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s military dictatorship last year. They said that they wanted the region to remain part of a united Libya but insisted the increased autonomy was needed after decades of discrimination against Cyrenaica, or Barqa as it is called in Arabic, under the old regime.
Libya’s former strongman used oil revenue from the east to finance development and largess in the west where he was from.
The move underscored the institutional weakness of Libya’s National Transitional Council, headquartered in western Tripoli, which has struggled since the fall of Gaddafi to maintain order in the nation of six million.
The interim leadership suspected that semiautonomy of Cyrenaica would ultimately lead to secession and suggested that other Arab nations were conniving to divide Libya. Just which countries were involved in such a plot, the NTC couldn’t say.
On Friday, there were protests in Benghazi too of easterners who fear the breakup of their country.
Less than a third of Libyans lives in the eastern province. The population is split between an Arab majority in the north which is largely urban and spread across different tribes and a black nomadic minority that dwells in the desert south. Both groups are Muslim.