Federalism and fragmentation in Libya? Not so fast…

Sean Kane writes: Benghazi is back in the headlines. On March 6, the capital of Libya’s 2011 uprising hosted a reported 3,000 tribal figures and leaders from the eastern half of the country. Seeking to marry eastern Libya’s status as the historical seat of the country’s pre-Qaddafi federal monarchy with local post-revolutionary anxiety, the conference provocatively announced the creation of the federal region of Barqa.

The reaction both within and outside of Libya has been swift. The ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) sharply criticized the declaration. Protests extolling national unity were held across the country and Libya’s leading mufti issued a fatwa against federalism. Meanwhile, Egypt, Tunisia, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference issued statements expressing support for a unified Libya and rejecting federalism. An editorial in the London-based pan-Arab daily al-Quds al-Arabi even opined that Qaddafi and his family must feel “vindicated” in their predictions that the country would fragment without them.

The reality is more nuanced than the excited commentary would suggest. The gulf between the “federalism” called for by some easterners and the administrative decentralization broadly favored across Libya is most likely relatively narrow. And even in eastern Libya, support for the federal model advocated for by the self-appointed Interim Council of Barqa appears mixed.

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