“Eastern Libya declares autonomy:” in spite of the international headlines, talk of the country's impending disintegration is misleading. Although the participants at the March 6 Barqa Conference (Barqa is the Arabic name for Cyrenaica, or northeastern Libya) claimed the right to speak for their region, the initiative for self-administration and move toward federalism triggered furious reactions in Cyrenaica. Given this lack of support in the region itself, the push is unlikely to succeed. 

Foreign media coverage of reactions to the initiative focused on anti-federalism demonstrations in Tripoli and the angry response of the chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC), Mustafa Abdul Jalil. But this emphasis on the tension between the central government and proponents of northeastern autonomy is misguided. More important reactions manifested in the northeast itself: local councils of the area’s major cities—Benghazi, Darna, Bayda and Tobruk, which also saw large demonstrations against federalism—all immediately made clear their opposition to the Barqa Conference’s declaration and refused to recognize its proposed regional council. The Muslim Brotherhood—which has an important base in northeastern cities—called it the work of narrow-based and personal interests. Furthermore, the initiative has not received significant backing from the disparate armed entities controlling the northeast; the region’s most powerful militia grouping, the Union of Revolutionary Brigades (Tajammu Saraya al-Thuwar), opposed the conference, and the Barqa Military Council (an unofficial grouping of several army units in the region) distanced itself from the conference, declaring it would not get involved in politics.  

The dominance of locally based interest groups is also reflected in the recent clashes that have pitted militias from different towns or tribes against each other nationwide. In many cases, conflicts run along the divisions of the civil war, reflecting the fact that Qadhafi’s security apparatus was recruited from certain tribal constituencies rather than others. Attempts by one group to arrest or disarm members of another group have been among the most common triggers of such clashes, which have been more pronounced in western and southern Libya than in Cyrenaica—though rivalry has increased even there. Following the announcement of the current government this past November, representatives of the Magharba and Awaqir clans demonstrated in Benghazi to demand greater political representation for their tribes. Leaders of the Obaydat tribe have clashed with other militia leaders in Benghazi over the slow progress of the investigation into the July 2011 murder of Major-General Abdul Fatah Younis Al-Obeidi, the former head of the Free Libyan Army. The Obaydat have repeatedly threatened to close roads or oil export terminals to exert pressure on others. In this environment, it remains difficult to imagine these different groups jointly pushing for regional unity—much less autonomy.

The local power centers seem more likely to push for decentralization of decision-making to the local level. This would involve moving control of budgeting processes to towns or districts and thus cementing the influence those cities, towns, and tribes acquired during the civil war. Contrary to federalism, decentralization appears to enjoy widespread support—even within the central government, which has already committed to delegating authority to local councils. 

The NTC only recently extended the timeframe for the constitution-drafting process to four months, due to start after the elections planned for June. In a situation where there is no previous constitution to build on (excluding the one in force during the monarchy) this is an extremely short timeframe. That the debate over decentralization, federalism, and the role of local political entities has begun already is a welcome sign. But the sudden—though unsubstantiated—push at Barqa only proves that nothing can be taken as given in the negotiations over the fundamental tenets of Libya's future government.  

Wolfram Lacher works on North Africa at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik) in Berlin. His research focuses on Libya and security issues in the Sahara-Sahel region.