By George Grant.
Zawiya, 3 July:
The western city of Zawiya has launched an extraordinary bid to defuse pro-federalist tensions in eastern Libya by offering all of its eight seats in the National Conference to Benghazi.
Although clearly established legal impediments prevent the offer from being taken up in practice, it is nonetheless seen as a significant gesture with potentially far-reaching ramifications ahead of the 7 July vote.
“We took this decision because we believe passionately in the unity of Libya”, said Osama Kubbar, one of the individual candidates offering to surrender his seat.
“Zawiya stood with Benghazi from the very outset of the revolution, and our two cities have a close and historic relationship. Seats count for nothing compared to the sacrifices all Libyans have made to make this a free country”.
In the past week, anger amongst federalists who believe the distribution of seats on the National Conference discriminates against eastern Libya has been growing.
On Sunday, between 100-200 demonstrators ransacked the office of the HNEC in Benghazi, burning election materials and chanting pro-federalist slogans. The HNEC office in Tobruk was also stormed on the same day, with protesters beating its deputy chairman, Mufta Othman, as they did so.
As things stand, 100 seats on the Conference are reserved for western Libya, as against 60 for the east and 40 for the south. The proportions are based on demographics, but federalists, along with many others in eastern Libya, fear that they will be at a disadvantage when it comes to making key decisions about Libya’s future in the National Conference, including voting to ratify the permanent constitution.
Kubbar says that today’s gesture by the people of Zawiya has not gone unnoticed in the east. “I just spoke with Abdul Jawed Al-Fagee, our point of contact with the federalists in Benghazi, and he was deeply moved. He said to me ‘don’t talk to us about federalism after today; don’t talk to us about giving up your seats; just support our push for equal seats in the National Conference’.”
At a rally of some 300 people in Zawiya this afternoon, organisers also said they had been contacted by leaders in the eastern cities of Bayda, Derna and Tobruk, all of whom had offered to surrender their seats in return.
“We are ready to do anything for the unity of Libya”, said Hadi Kormani, an elderly participant in today’s rally. “When Benghazi rose up last year, Zawiya stood with them. So why are we dividing over a few seats now?”
Set against the dramatic backdrop of Zawiya’s main square, still shattered by intensive fighting during last year’s revolution, many demonstrators had brought placards expressing their solidarity with eastern Libya.
“For the unity of Libya, the city of Zawiya sacrifices its seats to Benghazi”, said one. “Our love for Benghazi is bigger than the world can imagine”, said another.
A delegation from Zawiya is due to travel to Benghazi tomorrow to speak to federalists about their offer and to ask them to support the elections going ahead.
On Sunday, the leading Islamist cleric Ali Salabi visited the eastern city in his own bid to calm tensions, although he did not succeed.
Zawiya’s eight National Conference seats are divided evenly between political parties and individual candidates, with 147 people running for the individual seats alone. It is understood that the vast majority of them agreed to the move when the decision was taken yesterday evening.
With just four days to go until the elections, it remains to be seen how effective today’s efforts will be in helping to stem frustrations in eastern Libya, in particular preventing a boycott of the elections by federalists.
However, large counter-federalist rallies have taken place in a number of eastern Libyan cities today, and they are expected to continue in the run-up to the vote.