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Libya elections loom as political tensions simmer

Only days before elections begin, militant rivalries, dreams of secession and deeply embedded historical marginalisation pose major challenges to this war-torn North African country

Nada El-Kouny , Thursday 5 Jul 2012
Man walks near Libyan parliament building damaged by air strikes during the uprising, in Tripoli, June 2011 (Photo: Reuters)

Libyans head to the polls on Saturday for parliamentary elections they hope will be a step forward for a country still crippled by uncertainty more than eight months after Muammar Gaddafi's despotic rule came to a bloody end.

Gaddafi's death at the hands of NATO-backed rebel forces on 23 October 2011 marked the close of Libya's bloodiest phase in recent history, but transitional challenges are rife.
Despite relative calm in the major cities, the absence of a integrated police force or cohesive army, along with frequent clashes in far-flung corners of this vast North African nation, is fuelling a general impression of lawlessness. At the same time, inhabitants of several regions are calling for greater political autonomy, if not outright independence, sparking fears of the break up of Libya itself.
Armed groups, many of which fought against Gaddafi and refused to disband, continue to use their firepower for political advantage. Earlier this month, a milita from the mountains south of the capital seized Tripoli's main airport to force the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) to release of one of its members.
It was only the most high-profile incident to illustrate the difficulties in trying to trying to re-integrate armed rebels with disparate aims, greivances and loyalties.
Tribal rivalries and armed conflict
It is deep in Southern Libya, far from the eyes of most media, where such tensions have seen their most serious eruptions.
On Sunday the oasis town of Kufra was rocked by the latest armed clashes between the Berber Tabou tribe and Arab clans, including the Abu Seif tribe which is concentrated near the border with Chad. Skirmishes ended with 47 citizens killed and 100 injured, half of them women and children. The transitional government sent its Libyan Shield Bridage, part of the fledgling post-Gaddafi army, ostentiably to act as a peacekeeping force.
Earlier clashes in mid-February were resulted in 100 citizen deaths and the displacement of almost half the population of the immediate area, according to UN figures.
The tense situation prompted the Tabou to call in March 2012 for secession from the central government, saying this was necessary to protect themselves. Tabou leaders have on several occasions declared they are facing “genocide” and cited racial discrimination.
Secession and self-autonomy
This call for southern secession was little reported. It's a very different story for the northeast coastal areas of Libya, home to the cities of Benghazi, Al-Bayda and Tobruk, which slipped out of Gaddafi's control within a week of the 2011 uprising.
On 6 March this year, around 3,000 political, tribal and militia leaders made a unilateral decision to establish an autonomous government for the east, resurrecting the ancient Greek term for the region, Cyrenaica.
The self-proclaimed Cyrenaica Transitional Council -- also known as the Barqa Council -- held a conference in Benghazi to announce its plans. It has since called for a boycott of the weekend's elections.
Ahmed El-Zubair El-Senussi is leader of the council. He was a member of the NTC but suspended in early March at the order of its chairman, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, who dubbed El-Senussi's federalist dream a "foreign-inspired plot attempting to break up the country."
Supporters of self-rule strongly deny such claims, stressing that federalism will ensure a division of power and a system that better represents the plurality of society. But many believe it does more harm than good.
Mohamed Dursi, an employee at the Swedish Consulate in Benghazi, whose brother, Ramadan is a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood's offshoot Party—the Justice and Construction Party (JCP)— believes that those calling for boycotts are doing so based on the inequal division of parliamentary seats rather than desires for outright autonomy.
A preliminary division of Libya's new parliament saw the western half the country being allotted 120 seats, while the east received just 60.
Adel El-Faydi, head of the National Reconciliation Commission from the eastern city of Bayda, believes those calling for secession make up 10 per cent of the total population at most, but "aim to take us back to a monarchical system of governance."
Federalism: new wine in old skins?
The vast majority of Barqa Council members are easterners and, reportedly, supporters of the Senussi monarchy, the royal family established when Libya achieved independence from Italy after World War 2.
Gaddafi overthrew the monarchy in 1969 then shifted much of the country's power and resources from Benghazi to the west, making Tripoli the capital.
During the Colonel's 42-year rule, there was an almost polar division between the country's two halves. Seeing power, money and investment go to Tripoli, easterners believes themselves marginalised and mistreated. 
By the 1990s, anti-Gaddafi groups were beginning to form among tribes connected or loyal to the Senussi family.
One of Libya's bloodiest massacres took place at Abu Salim prison in Tripoli on 29 June 1996, when around 1,200 prisoners -- the majority from the east and jailed due to suspicions of Islamic militancy -- were killed by security forces.
Oil - blessing or curse?
Libya's natural resources are also playing a central role in political disputes, with Gamal Nkrumah, director of the Kwame Nkrumah Pan-African Cultural Centre, among those who think they are a major driver behind the new taste for federalism.
Libya is North Africa's largest producer of oil -- and the fifth-largest worldwide -- producing approximately 46 billion barrels of crude per year. 
Eastern Libya has two of the country's biggest oil fields; between them Mesala and Saraya hold 80 per cent of Libya's oil.
Joseph Hill, a Cairo-based professor of anthropology specialising in West Africa, broadly agrees with Nkrumah.
While, he says there are genuine distinctions between the different "tribal" groups based on heritage and class, Hills believes the issue is less to do with certain "primordial ethnic or tribal identities, as much as with struggles between particular centers of power based on access to material resources."
Federalist ideas are also being given more creedence by the sensationalist coverage of Libya's civil war by the international media, claims one western diplomat in Tripoli, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Reports of a war-torn territory beset by tribal rivalries are fuelling the idea that division is Libya's logical end, he says. It also echoes the warning from Gaddafi and his son, Saif Al-Islam, who repeatedly claimed the Libyan uprising would end up destroying the country.
Hill thinks the solution is not to be found by limiting calls for autonomy but rather by "institut[ing] a system whereby the different groups of people have ways to participate" -- something Libyans have been denied for decades.
In the meantime, passions are riding high and some fear disagreements over secession could spill into violence.
There are already signs.The regional headquarters of the High National Election Commission (HNEC) in Benghazi was ransacked on Monday by hundreds of men claiming to back the federalist project. 
Similar raids were carried out in the eastern cities of Tobruk and Bayda, in a clear expression of disgust at a forthcoming election they seem to believe will bring little concrete change.
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