The Libyan city of Benghazi, the “capital” of the east and the second largest city in the country, held a referendum this past weekend on whether or not to declare political autonomy. The results aren’t in yet, but it’s likely to pass.
Muammar Qaddafi knew if an uprising against him were to break out that it would start in Benghazi. His regime never had much support in the east. His family was from the west, which to the people of Benghazi practically made him a foreigner.
Libya doesn’t make much sense as a country. The western region, Tripolitania, has historically been oriented westward toward Carthage and Tunis. Cyrenaica, the area surrounding Benghazi, has always looked eastward toward Egypt.
As long as it doesn’t become infested with the likes of al-Qaeda, the distinct Saharan region of Fezzan south of Tripolitania may be too sparsely populated to be an ongoing geopolitical concern. The population of Cyrenaica, though, is huge—almost a third of the total—and Libya’s baked-in disunity is one of the reasons Qaddafi ran such a viciously repressive political system. He smothered Benghazi with far more totalitarianism than he ever inflicted on Tripoli.
Next-door Tunisia is in much better shape for a number of reasons, one of which is that it’s a coherent nation-state. It’s small and can hold itself together without any trouble. It lacks the tribalism, sectarianism, and geographic division that triggers civil wars in so many Arab countries.
Libya is blessedly free of sectarianism, but it still suffers from tribalism and militant regionalism. One of those problems would be partly resolved by federalism or, if that proves impossible, entirely solved by partition, at least theoretically.
The sticking point, though—and it’s a big one—is that most of Libya’s oil fields are in Cyrenaica. If the greater Benghazi area decides to take its ball and go home with most of Libya’s wealth, watch out. It will surely mean war. And if Cyrenaica’s yearning for autonomy isn’t respected, it’s exactly what we ought to brace for.
Correction: The election in Benghazi was for local candidates, many of whom support and campaigned for autonomy for Cyrenaica. The referendum itself will be held in four weeks.