The New Democratic Transition in Libya and the Aspirations of the Cyrenaican People


Two years have passed since the Libyan Revolution, but living conditions are still very poor and the provision of state services in various sectors has on average become lower even than during the period of Qaddafi’s corrupt government. So where is the stream of revolution going to stop? The Libyan federal state was initiated in 1951 under the supervision of the UN. It was based on the union of three independent regional states, each with its own constitution, parliament, and electoral legislation. Cyrenaica (the cradle of the most recent revolution) had strongly resisted both Ottoman and later Italian colonialism. It became totally liberated in 1948, was declared an emirate and as such was then recorded as the eighth Arab state.

Tripolitania on the other hand had been subjected both to Ottoman and then to Italian colonialism. In 1918 it had been declared a state under the tutelage of the Italian government. History has recorded that on many occasions and over many decades the people of Tripolitania supported the colonial forces in their efforts to suppress the numerous resistance movements in Cyrenaica. But the new federation of 1951 began merging the regions together. Many of the younger generation aimed to overcome all the past inter-regional conflicts. In addition, many people from Tripolitania migrated towards Cyrenaica as it was then the most stable region in the country and the only one that believed in co-existence. Then in 1963, after eighteen years of stable though dictatorial rule under royal monarchy, the Libyan federal structure was illegally scrapped without the issue even being put to a public referendum. The governors of the states of Fezzan and Cyrenaica were strongly opposed to this move and resigned immediately. From that moment the country became the victim of various managerial conflicts. At that time, the entire Arab region was experiencing a period of transition. Most of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa were gaining their independence; and that was also the moment when the Egyptian President Jamal Abdul Nasser began promoting his ideas on Arab Unity, which have influenced the region and eventually led to today’s new changes in “The Arab Spring”.

The sovereign rights of Cyrenaica and Fezzan were ‘looted’ in the name of national unity. In reality this was a conspiracy fabricated by influential families who sought to control the country’s wealth and power. After a few years spent reducing the various constituent identities of the country into one national identity, a military coup was mounted against the monarchy. The then King had been the ruler of Cyrenaica when it was an independent state – that is, before the federation was founded in 1948 – and the rebels believed he would certainly oppose centralising Libyan government in Tripolitania. He was misled into deciding to unify the country in the name of Arab Unity, though the lobby promoting this idea was in fact aiming at what lay beyond that goal. Within three years the Tripolitanian green flag was displayed throughout Libya, thereby excluding the two other symbols present in the 1951 independence flag: namely, the middle black stripe with a crescent and a star representing Cyrenaica, and the red stripe representing Fezzan.

The Tripolitanian lobby had strengthened the Qaddafi coup. Under him all the strategic government institutions were forcibly transferred from Cyrenaica and Fezzan to Tripolitania, which also received the highest governmental expenditure on infrastructure and educational scholarships. The result was that Tripolitania now had total domination over the country’s wealth. Talented, well educated people went to work there. Policy making was now centred there. For forty years the military rulers controlled the country from a centralized capital within the region of Tripolitania and fiercely resisted any call for the constituent regions of the Libyan entity to be respected.

After decades of neglect, a revolution was triggered exclusively in the cities of Cyrenaica on the 15th of February 2011. In only four days they were liberated and no longer controlled by Qaddafi’s forces. The uprising then began to spread to the other regions of the country. In April 2011 the revolution gave birth to a new call for a federation. This was officially agreed at a conference in the city of Benghazi on the 20th of July of the same year. But the performance of the interim authorities was very disappointing. It was riddled with financial corruption, and in short it did not match the aspirations of the Cyrenaican people. It did not achieve the aims of the revolution, which were to end all the practices related to regional neglect and tyranny. The transitional authorities were in fact wasting the region’s wealth. As regards matters of sovereignty in respect of decision- and policy-making, they were biased in favour of maintaining the same old centralized practices. They also insisted on moving their headquarters to Tripoli immediately after its liberation in August 2011.


Through media outlets and public campaigns a smear campaign was launched aimed at suppressing the call for federation. This was led by the head of the National Transitional Council himself, supported by a number of politicians, media outlets, and religious extremists who spread rumours among the general public that the federalists were in fact separatists working against the national interests, and that they were religiously outlawed. Nevertheless the federalists increased in numbers, especially in Cyrenaica, though they are not represented in the newly elected interim authority – the General National Congress – because they called on people to boycott the elections due to the unequal distribution of seats between the three constituent regions. For this reason over 1.3 million people did not participate in the electoral process in Cyrenaica. In order to defend their constitutional rights, this segment of the electorate is now becoming active in a number of civil institutions and political parties such as the National Union Party, the Forum of Cyrenaican Culture, and the Movement of Federal Libya.

There are expectations that a new revolution in Cyrenaica is likely to take place in the very near future. Its timing depends on the level of public awareness of the regional rights that the 17th of February Revolution did not yet achieve, but this time the movement might make higher demands than are feasible within a federal system. Cyrenaica, as the richest region among the three, holds almost 80% of the country’s oil, gas, and subterranean water reserves. It also has a huge potential for tourism, agriculture, and natural minerals. The public mood in Cyrenaica is looking towards achieving a smooth transition from being part of a unitary state to becoming a federation based on the rule of law and equal distribution of wealth and power. They appeal to all international and friendly advocacy groups, human rights organizations, and policy makers to support their movement to achieve peaceful transition and stability.

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