TUNIS- More than 90 mayors from across Libya's political divides are meeting for the first time in an effort to shore up their role in tackling conflict-linked crises and promote themselves as a unifying movement.
Local councils are one of the few parts of the vast North African state still functioning in a country where rival camps have split the government and major institutions as they vie for power and a share of shrunken oil revenues.
"When a citizen grumbles or complains about a service, he goes to the municipality. There is no other place for him to go," said Abdulrahman el-Abbar, mayor of the eastern city of Benghazi, before the three-day meeting that began on Wednesday in Hammamet in neighbouring Tunisia - security risks and political schisms make meeting inside Libya difficult.
"You need to reinforce (the municipality's) powers so that it can provide the right services to the people."
Despite Libya's oil wealth, public services were weak under Muammar Gaddafi's long rule. As Libya splintered and lawlessness set in following the 2011 uprising that ousted Gaddafi, services steadily collapsed.
A U.N.-backed government has largely replaced a self-declared rival in the capital Tripoli, but a third, almost powerless government, has held out in eastern Libya, aligning itself with military commander Khalifa Haftar.
All have overseen a worsening of living conditions, leaving residents seeking local or improvised solutions.
Abdulrahman al-Hamedi, mayor of Tripoli's Abu Salim district, says he has few resources to support residents crushed by rapid inflation, cash shortages and disrupted services.
PLUNGE IN LIVING STANDARDS
In what used to be one of the region's richest countries, monthly wages are now often worth less than $100 because of the sharp depreciation of the Libyan dinar on the black market, Hamedi said.
Abu Salim has been shaken by militia battles from the revolution until earlier this year, and is also home to large numbers of displaced people from other conflict-ridden areas.
"Currently the security situation is relatively stable," said Hamedi. "The economic situation is really terrible, given the lack of basic services that the citizen would normally be provided with, such as electricity or water or gas, or obtaining cash or even food products."
The United Nations relaunched a peace process in September, but the mayors have little hope of quick progress.
The Hammamet meeting, which was facilitated by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Geneva-based private diplomacy organisation, brings elected mayors from the west aligned with the U.N.-backed government together with eastern mayors, some of whom, like Abbar, owe their positions to Haftar.
They are discussing ways to act as a force for reconciliation as well as pressing for devolved powers.
"All the Libyan municipalities are in contact from the extreme east to the extreme west and the south; we don't have any problems," said Yousef Ibderi, mayor of Gharyan, 80 km (50 miles) south of Tripoli, who uses a walking frame after being hit by a sniper's bullet early last year.
"In the last three and a half years there has been no strong government, there's been no presence of the governments at all, but the municipalities were active despite a complete lack of budget and means, they were the guardians of stability and peace," he said.
"So we consider decentralization to be a very, very important solution and one that we need to work on."
(By Aidan Lewis, editing by Mark Heinrich) ((Aidan.Lewis@thomsonreuters.com ; +216-29850352;))