Analysis: Could Libya break apart?

Separatist demands have dramatically increased since the onset of the Arab uprisings.

November 4, 2013 17:05
3 minute read.
Debris outside the French embassy after the building was attacked, in Tripoli April 23, 2013.

Libya French embassy attack 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Ismail Zitouny)


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The eastern region of Libya, Cyrenaica, is exhibiting a growing desire for greater autonomy.

Since the Western-led military operation in Libya in 2011 and the fall of the country’s ruler Muammar Gaddafi, the country has fallen into chaos and violence.

Leaders of an autonomous movement in the country’s oil-rich east unilaterally declared the formation of a regional government on Sunday, challenging the weak central government.

The announcement is a symbolic blow to efforts by the Tripoli government desiring to reopen eastern oil ports and fields. Militias and tribes have been blocking these since the summer, demanding a greater share of power and of the oil wealth.

Without a strong leader or military force to control the militias and internal fighting, the country has become increasingly dangerous, even for the nominally elected leadership.

The latter does not control much outside of the capital, Tripoli. Last month, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan was kidnapped from the well-guarded Corinthia Hotel in the capital where he lived, but was later released.

Foreign embassies have been attacked and weapons belonging to the army have been looted. The borders in the southern region are porous and the central government does not effectively control its own territory. In addition, al-Qaida and other radical Islamic groups are taking advantage of the vacuum to make advances.

Libya, a failed state, is surrounded by other failed states such as Chad, Niger, and Sudan, not to mention Egypt, which is trying to put down an Islamist insurgency.

Prof. Yehudit Ronen of the political science department at Bar-Ilan University, and an expert on Libya, told The Jerusalem Post in an interview that the breakup of the Libyan state is an option, but not necessarily in the immediate future.

Another option, she said, is a fullfledged civil war. The central government cannot afford to lose the huge territory of eastern Libya, where roughly 60 percent of the country’s oil and gas is concentrated.

If Cyrenaica is able to fortify its autonomy, it could lead to a domino effect, said Ronen, adding that other areas in the country, such as the southern desert region of Fezzan, could follow suit.

However, the southern region is not nearly as motivated as eastern Libya, she said, noting that this is because eastern Libya was the cradle of the national struggle against Italian colonialism.

It is also where the kingdom of Libya was declared in 1951, and is home to several powerful tribes as well as the stronghold of Islamist movements.

Eastern Libya has been politically and economically neglected and deprived for four decades. Now the country is in chaos, with eastern tribes and the armed militias blocking oil exports.

“People in this area say, ‘We are sitting on major gas and oil reserves, so let’s take for ourselves what we deserve and end the socioeconomic morass,’” said Ronen.

“In fact these demands are just a symptom of a broader phenomenon in the Middle East and its margins in the Sahel region, where separatist demands have dramatically increased since the onset of the Arab uprisings,” she asserted.

Ronen went on to say that in the region there is Mali, where a Tuareg independence movement sought to create a new state in the north of the country called Azawad in 2012. In 2011, South Sudan gained independence.

In 1993, Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia and of course, there is the civil war in Syria, which could also lead to divisions in the country.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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