Abu Bakr Buwira bit down on his lip his guest listed off a litany of grievances in the quiet Benghazi office. “The ministry won’t give me the permits I need,” Muhammad Badil complained how bureaucrats in the capital of Tripoli are stymieing his plans to establish an import-export company in eastern Libya. “They say only Tripoli can give the authorization. How can I afford to spend all my time in Tripoli if my business is here?” Buwira leaned forward in his chaired and grinned. “When we have established our federalist state, you won’t ever need to go to Tripoli again. All the permits and bureaucratic authorizations will be available here.”
With Washington focused on an emerging jihadi threat in Libya in the wake of an attack that left four Americans dead, Libyan government leaders are confronted with more pressing concerns. An eastern federalist movement is working to weaken the nascent central government in Tripoli and torpedo America’s plan to build strong security forces that can eradicate the growing jihadist movement.
After Badil leaves, Buwira explains the need for a federalist state. “Tripoli is strangling us and stifling our economy,” he tells The Media Line. We can no longer be slaves to their bureaucrats.”
The modern state of Libya was cobbled together from three provinces – Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east and Fezzan in the south. Though Tripolitania accounted for three quarters of country’s population, a Cyrenaican-based monarchy held power. To mitigate fears that easterners would dominate the more populous westerners, a federalist system was devised that devolved many powers to the three provinces.
By the 1960s, the federalist government proved unfeasible with the provinces able to tax goods that originated in the other regions. When oil began flowing, fears of marginalization subsided as all Libyans began reaping the benefits of their black gold. As a result, in 1963, federalism was abolished.
But when Muammar Gaddafi came to power in 1969, he shifted power away from the Cyrenaican-based aristocracy and toward second class tribes. In the process, eastern towns like Benghazi and Darna that were once the cream of the country were relegated to the back of the bus.
Today, many Benghazi roads remain unpaved and sewage is pumped into a downtown lagoon. But the federalist leaders and their supporters want to change that. “We want shiny high rise buildings, just like Tripoli,” Hamdi Ghiryani told The Media Line. “They will bring more jobs so we don’t need to rely on Tripoli anymore.”
Severing the link between the capital and the distant Cyrenaica is what worries government leaders. “If Cyrenaica pushes for federalism, that will only weaken the fragile government that is trying to build itself after Gaddafi,” says a member of parliament. “There are just so many problems we can handle.”
And that will have ramifications for Washington’s struggle to stomp out the budding jihadist movement. Since the revolution began in February 2011, terrorism analysts warned that a weak central government fighting for its survival would not be able to prevent jihadists from flowing into Libya from North Africa and beyond. Today, their Cassandra-like prophecies have come true as the September 11th attack against the American Consulate in Benghazi illustrates.
Much like the Gaddafi regime it replaced, the new government is also too weak to take on the jihadists. To remedy this dilemma, Washington wants to mold a special forces unit to combat such threats. But with the Libyan government and militias loyal to it more focused on the immediate dangers of the federalist movement, few in Libya have time to deal with problems that concern Washington.
“The jihadists are not really a problem for the Libyan government,” says a political science professor from Benghazi. “They are not transforming Libya into Iraq with daily attacks against civilians and targeting politicians. America is worried Libya is becoming a new al-Qaida base. But we don’t really feel this.”
A leader of a Benghazi-based militia concurs. “For us, the federalists are a much bigger concern than a few guys with beards training in the desert. They can mobilize feelings of marginalization to tear the country apart. We just can’t have that and we need to focus on preventing that.” And as they do, Washington’s priorities are being shifted to the sidelines.
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