In an old coffee shop in Hout Souq, in downtown Benghazi, Muhammad Abdulatti, wearing simple clothes stained with oil and grease, solemnly smoked a cigarette.  Unlike the others in the coffee shop, his index finger wasn’t stained with phosphoric ink.

In an old coffee shop in Hout Souq, in downtown Benghazi, Muhammad Abdulatti, wearing simple clothes stained with oil and grease, solemnly smoked a cigarette.  Unlike the others in the coffee shop, his index finger wasn’t stained with phosphoric ink.

A car repair shop employee in Benghazi, Abdulatti was one of the dissatisfied Libyans from the east who have long been protesting the allocation of electoral seats.  The National Transition Council allotted the east, or Cyrenaica, only 60 of 200 seats.  While the election had a high voter turnout of 70%, some easterners like Abdulatti chose to boycott the election.

Most of the international agencies that monitored and supervised the process, praised the first post-Gaddafi democratic election for running smoothly and fairly.  Despite security issues in some areas that shut down polls and the fatal shooting of an election official in Ajdabiya, the election has been heralded a success.

But behind the scenes of electoral victory, Abdulatti and many others like him felt shut out of the democratic process.

“Half a hundred is fifty,” a man sitting near Abdulatti said sympathetically in local slang, which means ‘Nothing is worth grief and anger’. With a miserable expression on his face, Abdulatti responded, “You mean a third of Libya, Cyrenaica.”

Abdulatti was a member of the Cyrenaica Region conference, which was held in Benghazi last March and attended by 4,000 people. The conference declared the Cyrenaica area—from the Egyptian borders in the east to the Sirte area in the west— as a federal state.

Conference participants like Abdulatti endorsed the 1952 constitution, which divides Libya into three federal states with Islam as its jurisprudence.

The idea of dividing Libya into three regions, like the division of which the Libyan Republic was established pursuant to the 1951 constitution, became history once Libya became a unified state, with Tripoli as its capital, in 1963. Younger Libyan generations, in the west and south of the country in particular, deem it a completely strange and unacceptable idea.

After hearing about the Cyrenaica Region’s proclamation for federalism, Abdulatti’s friends from all over the country phoned him. “Do you want secession? Do you want to betray the martyrs’ blood that has watered the soil of Libya?”

One by one, officials – from the Chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC), to the Prime Minister–denounced the proclamation.  Everyone accused the Cyrenaica conference participants of being advocates of secession and division. Even the Mufti—a Sunni Islamic scholar who interprets Islamic law—expressed his disappointment.

“Do you remember when it all began?” asked Abdulatti, his eyes staring off into space. “It began when NTC issued the Electoral District Demarcation Law for the GNC elections.”

The issuance of the Electoral District Demarcation Law has been received with great legal controversy led by jurists, politicians and civil society organisations, as the distribution criteria aren’t clear.

To address this issue and ease the situation in the eastern area, NTC amended Article 30 of the Constitutional Declaration, which regulates the transitional period in the country.

The amendment states that the power of developing and drafting the constitution shall be transferred from the GNC members to a committee comprising 60 persons to be chosen equally from the three Regions – Tripoli, Cyrenaica and Fezzan – by GNC members.

To emphasize their dissatisfaction with the amendments made to the Provisional Constitutional Declaration, a second meeting of Cyrenaica Council was held, but this time in Bayda, 1,200 km to the east of Tripoli.

The conferees demanded that the constitution and electoral law be drafted by a commission, elected equally among the Libyan regions.  The political system of Libya is to be decided by the constitution drafting committee and the three presidencies: Chairmanship of the Parliament, Prime Ministry and state Presidency; which, would rotate amongst the three regions, under the auspices of the democratically elected parliament.

Populations of the west and south of Libya rejected these demands and demonstrated against federalism.

Proponents of the seat number amendment, however, escalated their position by sitting-in within the Red Valley area – the western borders of the Cyrenaica Region. Most of them were locals and from neighboring areas, then many joined them from the eastern area.

In a short period of time, demonstrations turned violent.

Some of those calling for federalism or the adjustment of the seat number stormed the High Electoral Commission seat in Benghazi and destroyed much of its contents. They also tore up pictures of election candidates in Benghazi, Bayda and Ajdabiya.

Some burned warehouses that were full of election materials in Ajdabiya on the morning of the elections, causing their delay for 12 hours in at least four cities. In addition, they fired at a helicopter carrying electoral materials to Benghazi, which led to the death of a high electoral commission employee who was on board.

Sitters-in within the Red Valley partially closed the road and prevented trucks and goods from passing through. A few days before the elections, they also shut down the flow of oil from ports in the east.

Finally, two days before the elections, NTC approved a constitutional amendment that provides for electing the committee that would draft the constitution, in response to the objectors’ demands.

Saad Dinali of Benghazi who also boycotted the elections in protest of the inequality of electoral seats, disagreed with the violence but said it was to be expected.

“The amendment came too late,” Dinali said. “Many disturbances could have been avoided if NTC had responded to these demands earlier.”