Libya Flirts with Federalism

Reactions were mostly negative when three thousand delegates met in eastern Libya and declared their desire to become semi-autonomous last week. Headlines suggested the dissolution of post-war Libya was imminent. Some hinted that Libya might relapse into civil war.

The official response was not helpful. National Transitional Council (NTC) chief Mustafa Abdel Jalil threatened force when asked about the east’s autonomy bid. He also dismissed Libyan federalists as puppets manipulated by Qaddafi loyalists and foreign “infiltrators.” Conventional wisdom quickly asserted that the east’s declaration was dangerous—even though it held no official or legal weight. Thousands of Libyans, worried about the precedent set and surprised by the declaration, turned out on Friday to protest in Tripoli and Benghazi.

Libya’s problems are many. But even if the federalist approach is never adopted, observers should recognize that it is an encouraging sign. Libyans are now debating the character, shape, and form of their new democracy. Some, like those in the NTC, favor a decentralized approach, however poorly defined, while others are pushing for a federalist program that limits Tripoli’s mandate. Earlier today, an interim government spokesman promised that NTC offices would soon open in Benghazi and Sabha, saying that the move is designed to “avert the policy of federalism to run the state’s affairs.”

Before Qaddafi was forced from power last August, the country suffered from a total lack of responsive institutions. Indeed, the weight of Qaddafi’s cult of personality warped the Libyan state, making him central to the country, while other state organs and civic groups withered in his shadow. Qaddafi’s centrality translated into a sluggish post-war recovery; Libyans essentially started from scratch last year. Conditions have improved little since the regime’s collapse although oil production returned steadily and the country is adhering to its timeline for a new constitution and elections.

While these developments deserve praise, some in the east remain skeptical. The gap between east and west was obvious during and before civil war. Some in the west accused the east of failing to fully support the war effort, as they fought to capture cities loyal to Qaddafi, and Benghazi-based NTC members attended international conferences in foreign capitals, far away from the fighting. Since the NTC moved from Benghazi to Tripoli last September, complaints persist in the east as well. Many find it impossible to do business with the interim government because of chronic delays and arbitrary requirements left over from the Qaddafi era. Advocates for federalism point to the constitution of 1951 as their inspiration for last week’s autonomy bid.

Contrary to alarming headlines, last week’s eight-point declaration did not completely reject NTC authority. Instead, it sought a federal arrangement that would allow the east to manage its own affairs, while acknowledging the NTC as “the symbol of the country’s unity, and its legitimate representative in international forums.” Reports from the March 6 conference suggested that the system of 1951-1963 would be the model for a new federal arrangement. That system, overseen by King Idris in the post-colonial period, included three provinces: Tripolitania in the west, Fezzan in the southwest, and Cyrenaica in the east.

Conference officials said that Cyrenaica (i.e. eastern Libya) wished to establish its own parliament, command its own police force, maintain its own courts, and look to Benghazi for immediate needs. Tripoli would be responsible for foreign policy, fielding a national army, and managing oil resources, according to the federalist plan.  It’s unclear how much popular support the initiative enjoys. As stated above, mass protests followed. The biggest obstacle for federalists today is that many Libyans see any split as an absolute failure. Having sacrificed so much in the revolution, citizens expect a strong government and unified state to be formed soon.

Nevertheless, tensions between east and west have defined Libyan politics for decades. During King Idris’ rule, Cyrenaica was given special status thanks to the monarch’s eastern ties. Muammar Qaddafi reversed the east’s good fortune, however, as he nationalized oil and invested in Tripoli and western Libya. Benghazi became a revolutionary hub last year in large part because of its remoteness from Tripoli and its long held grievances, which included underdevelopment, and limited access to resources. Qaddafi’s neglect was even more humiliating for easterners since Libya’s oil wealth is concentrated in the old province of Cyrenaica. Naturally, any delay in recovery has only confirmed the worst suspicions, leading many in the east to conclude their status will not improve soon enough—or that they will be denied their fair share.

And so it should surprise no one that a country with zero experience in democracy is now consumed by questions of how to create a post-war order that is responsive to citizens. Along the way, the NTC’s failures have encouraged others to articulate a vision for the future. The Council—founded in February 2011 as the international face of the Libyan revolution—has yet to establish authority, absorb enough militias, gain control of prisons, or remedy suffering with oil revenues. Patience with the NTC eroded quickly this year. In January, protestors stormed the NTC headquarters twice in only a few days, both times threatening officials. Even Jalil’s threat to use force against federalists was sadly ironic because he has no force to threaten the east with. The NTC is still having trouble controlling the capital.

Unfortunately, rival militias still dominate the scene. According to reports, militias wrestled control of some cities away from Qaddafi, only refusing later to return them to citizens caught up in the fighting. Judicial review is all but lost in the Twilight Zone of the post-war period. Accountability remains in short supply. In some cities, like Misrata, militias have been kicked out, and citizens have arranged their own municipal council elections without Tripoli’s input. Others in the east have taken a more dramatic approach by pushing for more independence.

My question is simple: Why can’t last week’s announcement be a good thing? Considering the NTC’s shortcomings and the fuzziness of Libya’s future governing system, shouldn’t creative solutions from citizens be welcomed, even if they are not adopted? Even those afraid of the federalism bid must admit that, if the east’s declaration is scrutinized carefully, it seems most concerned with local issues (the courts, policing, etc.). Most encouraging of all is the east’s supposed willingness to cede control of natural resources to Tripoli, which would presumably share the country’s underground inheritance with all Libyans.

This is the beginning of an extraordinary debate. We should hope that all sides are given a chance to make their case without fear of reprisal or being drowned out by the white noise of emotion. The National Transitional Council, for one, has pledged to uphold the right of free expression. Theoretically, that includes those who challenge their authority.

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