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After Qaddafi, Libya's east tires of Tripoli too

Oil-rich eastern Libya is looking for greater autonomy after playing a major role in deposing Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi.

By Steven SotloffContributor / March 18, 2012



Benghazi and Tripoli, Libya

When the western city of Misurata came under siege during Libya's revolution last year, Adnan al-Baghathi grieved for his countrymen. After Misurata residents fled to his town of Benghazi – 20 hours to the east by boat – he arranged lodging for them and organized food deliveries.

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Today, however, he has no love lost for Misurata's residents, claiming they have monopolized top posts in the new Tripoli-based government and sidelined easterners, who spearheaded the uprising against Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.

"Everyone sacrificed during the revolution," Mr. Baghathi grumbles. "It doesn't belong to any one town or region."

So now, eastern Libyans like Baghathi who chanted "no east, no west, Libya is one" during the revolution are backing a nascent eastern political movement that is moving to break away from Tripoli. On March 6, about 2,800 political and social activists gathered in an old soap factory near Benghazi to announce the formation of an interim council that would pave the way for the creation of an autonomous government.

Return to federalism?

Easterners hope that such a return to federalism, which prevailed here before Mr. Qaddafi took over, could provide them with better community services and a greater share of the spoils from Libya's oil industry, which is largely concentrated in the east and south.

"We see none of our country's great oil wealth," laments Mukhtar Jabir of Benghazi. "All we know is oil is pumped from under our feet and goes to pay for health and education somewhere else."

But the eastern move toward autonomy could also have serious ramifications for the fragile state that has emerged from the ruins of Qaddafi's 42-year rule. While many proponents say such a move must be accomplished through democratic means, regional militias could take up arms to defend their territories and plunge the nation into a new civil war.

To reverse decades of marginalization, easterners seek to develop a quasi-state with its own legislature and court system. The local government would run education, housing, and health ministries, while foreign affairs would be kept in the hands of the central government.

"We in the east and the south have been marginalized the past 50 years," says conference organizer Abu Bakr Bueira. "All the major positions, jobs, and money are in Tripoli, not Benghazi."

Former royalty involved

Participants at the March 6 conference chose Ahmad Zubayr al-Sanussi, a relative of the monarch whom Qaddafi overthrew in 1969, to lead the interim council.

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