Last week, a new unity government was sworn in by the House of Representatives, formed largely by international actors. In his speech, the interim Prime Minister Abdulhamid Dbaiba made a number of promises, one of which is to ‘move away from the [three] regions’ and towards decentralization.
This type of promise is not new – indeed many Libyan figureheads who claim to push for unity have publicly decried the existence of three Libyan regions, which are seen as divisive components that stand in the way of uniting the fragmented country. This comes from a deep seated fear of federalism, a term that become a boogeyman in 2012 with the emergence of a federal movement in East Libya (I wrote more about this at the height of the debate here).
Federalism in Libya is not a new or novel concept. Libya historically was formed of three distinct regions, divided mainly by geographical elements. These regions were united under the King with significant support (and/or pressure) from international actors (notice the pattern?). The country formed in 1954 was a federalist state with two capitals, Tripoli and Benghazi, although this was dissolved in 1963 with the amendment of the constitution, creating instead a more centralized government. While the popular claims are that federalism failed because of corruption and nepotism, we can’t ignore that the decision came at the start of Libya’s oil boom, making it easier for foreign companies to operate in the country by dealing with only one centralized authority.
Yet, while the motivations for opposing federalism are largely political and economic, the reasons given by decision-makers focus almost solely on the social. “Federalism will divide Libya”, “it will fragment the society and increase animosity”. But Libya has not been more fragmented than in these past ten years, where a very centralized system that favored certain ideologies and groups led to warfare across the country and further entrenched the marginalization of regions outside of Tripoli’s influence. Indeed, calls for separation have increased from all three provinces in the past decade, by Libyans who are fed up with the continuous outbreaks of war and stalemates by actors all vying to control Tripoli at the expense of the rest of the country.
The key flaw in the argument against a federal Libya is that it categorically rejects the historic, social, cultural and geographic basis on which the country’s three regions exist. Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan are not colonial inventions or bureaucratic tools; there is a long legacy that underpins the formation of these regions. For many Libyans, rejecting the existence of these regions is a rejection of their identities, their agency and their right to self-determination.
Conversely, building on the existing local structures that make up regional identity and power is the logical way forward if calls for decentralization are to be taken sincerely. Indeed, with the total breakdown of national governance in 2014, that’s exactly what happened. Networks of tribes, armed actors, local authorities and civil society have filled up the gap left behind by the national government, and in most parts of Libya this ad hoc system is what is still in place today. Indeed, Libya’s de facto governance system today is largely federal except in name.
The system that the new unity government wants to put in place once again throws around the world ‘decentralization’ without specifying what that actually means. The only clear guidelines around local government is enshrined in Law 59, a weak law that has been criticized by countless Libyan academics and decision-makers for perpetuating dependence on central authority. There are currently over 120 municipal councils in Libya, most of which are too weak and under-resourced to provide even basic services to their constituents, or otherwise are breaking the law by collecting their own taxes rather than waiting for a central government budget that always comes too late.
Decentralization is an approach that requires a strong central government and the resources to create nodes of power that reach every Libyan citizen. Neither of these things are present in Libya, and it will take decades to build such a system. But more than this, decentralization does not address the decades of grievances and disenfranchisement, or the identity politics at the heart of the calls for federalism.
I am not naïve enough to believe that federalism will solve all of Libya’s problems. It is a system that comes with its own issues, and the creation of federal states could lead to the dominance of certain tribes and leaders at the expense of other groups, and recreate marginalization on a regional level. But these are problems that are at risk of appearing regardless, and it’s important to remember that Libyan society is a complex entity. A federal system can help foster political legitimacy and lead the way towards building a strong state that doesn’t leave any citizen behind.