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A post-colonial united Libya looks increasingly like wishful thinking

November 9, 2020 at 6:01 pm

Self-proclaimed Libyan National Army (LNA) Chief of Staff, Khalifa Haftar (C) arrives for a conference on Libya on November 12, 2018 at Villa Igiea in Palermo [FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images]

Not many people have seen or even heard of, the black flag of Cyrenaica with its white crescent and star; a black version of the Turkish flag, perhaps. Events since the uprisings in Libya against former dictator Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, however, are making it even more visible.

Following the success of NATO-backed Libyan revolutionaries in toppling the old regime, years of rebel infighting ensued before the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) was created. Despite its many imperfections, the GNA has managed, surprisingly so, to keep the militias with which it is aligned under its umbrella in the fight against Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his militias.

Haftar’s brutal year-long offensive against the capital Tripoli, which left many mass graves in its wake, was defeated earlier this year by the government, and the two sides finally announced an immediate ceasefire last month. It is lasting, unlike numerous others broken previously.

With talks underway and both the government and Haftar agreeing on a roadmap for the implementation of the ceasefire, a key location for the process is the city of Sirte. Located in the centre of Libya’s densely populated coastline and rich in oil and natural gas, Sirte was unsuccessfully fought over by government forces attempting to gain themselves more leverage in negotiations. Now it is the city in which the joint military commission’s talks will be held.

Just as the tensions have largely eased and a political process is looking ever more likely, however, age-old political and separatist movements rooted in thousands of years of Libyan history have surfaced. The Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Ottomans all made a distinction between Tripolitania in the west and Cyrenaica in the east of the land that we now know as Libya. Even the Italian colonisers built their towering triumphal arch on the Via Balbia highway near the town of Ra’s Lanuf in the 1930s, in order to mark a border between the two regions. Today, the concept of a federal Libya has re-emerged, as it has done frequently over the past century.

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In 2013, during the civil war, an autonomous movement backed by a tribal leader and a former air force commander from the east of Libya declared a government of Cyrenaica. In September this year, forces in the east established the Cyrenaica Supreme Council, which called for autonomy as stipulated under the 1951 Constitution which governed Libya by three distinct provinces.

Cyrenaica – or Barqa in Arabic – stretches from Sirte to the Egyptian border, covering the key coastal cities of Benghazi and Tobruk, the Great Sand Sea and oil fields holding around 80 per cent of the country’s reserves. To the west lies Tripolitania, with its own coastal cities such as Misrata and the capital Tripoli, as well as minor oil fields. Then there is Fezzan in the south-west, which is largely barren desert aside from oases and largely dry valleys.

With this historical and geographic layout, “Libya” has always been the result of the political dominance of the nation-state rather than the natural will of the people, as is often the case with post-colonial countries. The fiercest supporters of a more autonomous system in Libya are the separatists of Cyrenaica, who are said to resent those in Tripolitania for what is seen as the capital’s attempts to colonise the east.

Under Gaddafi, a federal system was deemed impossible; after his overthrow and the civil war it was deemed possible but improbable, and now it seems both possible and probable. With the country split between the government in the west and Haftar in the east – both having been backed by foreign states and supplied with mercenaries – the old border between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica has once again provided an opportunity for some level of autonomy.

The reality of the Libyan conflict is that Haftar is and will remain stubborn enough to hold onto his power in the east. The Tripoli-based GNA, meanwhile, has just repelled a bloody offensive and is certainly not looking to cede power. Haftar’s project to conquer Tripoli and annex it into his own “unified” version of Libya has failed, but the GNA has not expressed any intention to take control of Benghazi, Tobruk or both.

Bloody Haftar - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Bloody Haftar – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Now the country is left almost perfectly divided, with the “border” between the two sides marked by Sirte where negotiations will be held soon. The agenda may well have to include the issue of partition.

If such talks do not succeed and either Haftar or the government decide to have another go at each other, the disintegration of Libya as we know it will be a consideration. It is then likely that Cyrenaica’s calls for autonomy, as well as Fezzan’s on a smaller scale, will grow as political uncertainty prevails. Whatever happens, the only certainty at the moment is that Libya has never been so divided as a nation-state and prone to disintegration and federalism. A post-colonial united Libya looks increasingly like wishful thinking.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.