Southern violence signals that Libya risks breaking apart
Clashes in the southern city of Sebha last week highlighted a hidden side of post-revolution Libya. The rights of minority groups are being exploited for the sake of political gains.
The violence pitting Tabu tribesman against Arab Libyans, killing at least 50 people, has reportedly continued despite a ceasefire signed on Thursday. Issa Abdulmajeed Mansour, a leader of the Tabu National Salvation Front, has said that his group had mobilised to protect the rights of the Tabu minority from systematic abuse. If discrimination continues, Mr Mansour said, his group would demand an independent state "like South Sudan".
This is a very dangerous twist in Libya following tribal leaders' calls for autonomy in the eastern region of Cyrenaica last month. It is all part of the struggle for power in the new Libya as different factions try to win a stake in the political system.
The media have also failed to cope with the dangerous developments. This failure has led to the birth of stories and half-truths to describe the events unfolding on the ground. The absence of credible, unbiased news has led to a state of confusion that extends to government.
Abdel Majid Al Nasr, Sebha's representative to Libya's National Transition Council, said he would resign in protest over the government's slow response to the violence. Mr Al Nasr also called on the government to take a greater role in the security of cities and borders across Libya.
The issues inherited from the Qaddafi regime are grave. Many of the Tabu and Tuareg peoples in southern Libya have not been granted citizenship, and Qaddafi used them to threaten the stability of Libya's southern neighbours.
In a related issue, according to immigration officials more than 40,000 non-Libyans, mainly from elsewhere in Africa, were granted Libyan citizenship unlawfully in return for their support of Qaddafi's government during the armed struggle. That complicates the preparation for the upcoming elections, with non-Libyans technically able to vote.
This is a critical issue, and an unpleasant one, for the government and the NTC to tackle. As the clashes in the south take on an ethnic dimension, it is minority-group Libyans such as the Tabu who suffer the most. The dilemmas posed by minority rights for Libyans who have long been exploited, and foreigners who have illegitimate Libyan citizenship, are now being confused. There are consequences for the long-term stability and rule of law.
It is obvious that the NTC and the government have failed miserably in forming a coherent and inclusive approach to tackle the various critical issues. The optimism that followed the armed conflict has now come to haunt the NTC.
There are signs that the country is fragmenting, and not just in the south. In mid-March, thousands marched in Benghazi to support the call for autonomy, and were attacked by gunmen who tried to quell the demonstrations. Several protesters suffered gunshot wounds, with unconfirmed reports that one person was killed.
The demonstrations came after the newly formed Barqa Council, which advocates autonomy for Cyrenaica, called on Libyans to rally in support. At the same time, thousands protested in cities across Libya, including in Benghazi, to criticise the Barqa Council's unilateral move.
After the violence, the NTC issued a statement blaming the pro-autonomy camp for the bloodshed. Leaders have also called for an immediate investigation into the events and pledged to bring those responsible to justice.
The unfortunate response of Mustafa Abdul Jalil, chairman of the NTC, was that the government would use force against anyone who wanted to divide the country - even if that division came in the context of federalism. Mr Jalil later said that his statement had been taken out of context and that he had meant the power of law. But the interior minister Fawzi Abdulal made similar statements from Misurata just last week. For some in Benghazi, the statements are a reminder of the days when Qaddafi threatened eastern Libya.
The NTC and its interim government have handled the whole situation badly, with ad hoc statements causing more tensions between the different parties. There should be a direct and transparent dialogue between the NTC and leaders in eastern and southern Libya. Instead, the NTC and the government chose to dismiss calls for federalism.
Only through a public debate can Libyans reach an understanding and consensus. Libyans need to at least consider the possibility of federalism to share power between the different regions and groups. A limited form of regional autonomy will ultimately be the best way to maintain the unity of the country, which is being threatened by the continuing clashes of armed groups and the weak response by the authorities.
Mohamed Eljarh is a UK-based Libyan academic and activist
On Twitter: @eljarh
Updated: April 1, 2012 04:00 AM