Cyrenaica’s demand for autonomy is dangerous not only because it fans fear of Libya’s fragmentation—unlikely in my view—but also because it could initiate a tussle over the sharing of national economic resources. The proponents of Barqa are willing to let Tripoli handle foreign and defense policy, but they want to run their courts and police forces—and to control tax revenue and economic policy. This last economic feature of the autonomy movement raises particular concerns in Tripoli because the bulk of Libya’s oil reserves—reportedly as much as 80 percent—are in the East, and eastern aquifers are a vital source of water for Tripolitania. Just this month, Cyrenaica’s leaders flexed their muscles, declaring that, unless their proposal for parliamentary representation were approved, they would prevent the flow of goods westward; in March a founder of the Barqa assembly even threatened to withhold eastern oil. Bombast? Perhaps. But it was certainly incendiary.
Ironically, what has enabled the NTC to parry the eastern challenge has been localism—this time in the East itself. While it’s now common to highlight Libya’s East-West tensions, this dichotomous interpretation is too simplistic: Barqa itself is divided on federalism, and several Eastern town councils and militias have declared that they would not support the autonomy movement. Still, the East-West problem will persist after the election and may become especially contentious once the parliament elected in July gets to work on the constitution.
Demands for autonomy may not be confined to the East if Libya’s Berbers (or Amazigh, as they refer to themselves) use the increased power they have gained from the revolution to seek constitutional guarantees limiting the central government’s role in their lives. Under Qaddafi, the Amazigh—who were present in North Africa before the Arab Muslim conquest in the seventh century—were subjected to Arabization and discrimination, and their language (Tamazight) and culture were suppressed. Thus, when the revolt against Qaddafi began in eastern Libya, militias from Amazigh strongholds in the western Nafusa Mountains were quick to join the battle and formed part of the pincer movement that enabled the resistance to take Tripoli. Now, with their position strengthened by their militias and their role in the revolution, the Amazigh are animated by a rejuvenated nationalism, one marked by the flowering of civic groups. And they are determined to realize their national aspirations, all of which hinge on gaining greater freedom from the central government.
The NTC has been unable to deal with the deadly violence between tribes and ethnic groups that has become a staple of Libyan politics—and it will bequeath this problem to its elected successor.
Some of the clashes involve score settling between tribes that were favored by Qaddafi’s allocation of state jobs and land—and those who were not—or between tribes who took up arms against the ancien regime and those who stood with it. Other armed conflicts have an ethnic and tribal patina but are ultimately about controlling the routes used for smuggling arms, drugs, cigarettes and people seeking illegal entry to Western countries. Whatever the root cause, these fights have sometimes involved heavy armaments, resulting in significant losses of life. On occasion, government forces have been overwhelmed and forced to retreat, requiring reinforcements, whether from the army or militias.
In two particularly serious instances (the first involving Amazigh militias from the western town of Zuwara and Arab fighters from Ragdalein, the second between Arab militias from the southern city of Sabha and those belonging to the black African Toubu tribe), the NTC’s head, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, and the prime minister, Abdel Rehman El Keib, arrived to mediate. The larger effect of such recurrent clashes has been to convince existing militias not to dissolve themselves and to encourage groups fearful of being attacked to form their own paramilitary groups.
The fallout from Libya’s communal violence has already crossed its borders, creating a regional crisis. When the Tuaregs of southern Libya, whom Qaddafi used as mercenaries, crossed into Mali with their weapons after his fall, they strengthened northern Mali’s long-running Tuareg insurgency, enabling it to overwhelm the army and take over several towns, which in turn forced thousands to seek safe haven as refugees in Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Niger. Discontent within the army’s ranks precipitated a coup just as Malians were preparing for elections, casting doubt on the future of the democratic political system that has been in place since 1992. Northern Mali remains outside the control of the country’s central government in Bamako, and in April the Tuareg rebels declared an independent state of Azawad. The Economic Community of West African States has been negotiating with the insurgents but insists that it will preserve Mali’s territorial integrity, using force if need be; and Niger, Nigeria and Senegal have offered to send troops.
The upheaval in Libya was created by independent town councils, its multitudinous militias, the bloodshed produced by contests over land rights and smuggling routes, and the fights between tribes and ethnicities. Will it recede once a democratic polity sinks roots and establishes institutions that resolve societal disputes through bargaining, compromise and cooptation? Or will these problems prove so potent that they eventually deform the nascent system, creating disunity and paralysis? It’s impossible to say with any certainty. But this much is certain: Libya’s future depends on which of these patterns prevail.