First Published: 2012-07-02


Federalism in Libya: Present and Past Perspectives


The reasons behind calls for federalism in eastern Libya are founded on fear of marginalization and domination of the political landscape in the country by the majority in Tripolitania. These fears highlight an issue of mistrust between the people in eastern Libya and the emerging political elite in western Libya, argues Mohamed Eljarh.


Middle East Online

The federalism debate in Libya is not a new one. When Libya gained independence in 1951, federalism was the basis on which the federal United Kingdom of Libya was formed and gained independence with the help of the UN special envoy Adrian Pelt. The reason behind the debate for federalism in Libya is about whether the political influence and representation in Libya should be based on geographic or population basis, and these were the same reasons that led to the independence of Libya as a federal kingdom.

Until now the debate about federalism in Libya has not taken any economic or social dimensions. However, many have been trying to divert the debate by trying to give it economic and social dimensions. The reasons behind calls for federalism in eastern Libya are founded on fear of marginalization and domination of the political landscape in the country by the majority in Tripolitania. These fears highlight an issue of mistrust between the people in eastern Libya and the emerging political elite in western Libya, and it is important to stress that the mistrust isnt between the people of Libya, it is rather mistrust in the political elite and the political system as whole.

Anti-federalists and pro-federalists are both struggling to appreciate the complexity of the issue at hand, and the anti-federalists are especially struggling to understand the historical facts and dimensions to this debate. Their excuse for such position is that Libya needs to move forward and not be stuck with the past. However, such position dismisses the fears and somewhat legitimate concerns of pro-federalists and many others in eastern Libya. The debate is becoming more polarized, especially with both parties involved refusing to listen to each others views.

Moreover, anti-federalists need to understand that promises and wishful thinking is not enough to calm down and address the fears and concerns of many in eastern Libya. Also, it is clear in eastern Libya that for pro-federalists and many neutral people that the current allocation of seats for the National Assembly deepens their fears, and puts in question and serious doubt the promises made by the political elite, that the new political system in Libya would guarantee the rights of all Libyans, and ensure equality between all citizens regardless of the region they come from.

The debate for federalism or constitutional decentralization would become more meaningful if it was to address issues such as, local ownership, local political participation, and development of political and civil human resources in local capacities etc. The debate would then mature and the outcome of such debate would benefit Libya as whole. Also, many in Libya agree that decentralization would be good for the country and the citizens especially in remote areas that are far away from Tripoli. However, the debate has never been about the degree of centralization, and what guarantees and safeguards would be introduced to protect such decentralization of any incoming government with a majority of fiddling with the system, that could completely disregard any local opposition or views on crucial issues.

Present Perspectives

The debate for federalism started soon after the uprising in Libya gained momentum. However, the debate actually started to become more visible in August 2011 when political and tribal gatherings started to take place in eastern Libya to discuss possible ways forward. There has been communication with the NTC and other officials regarding the issue, but many of the attempts to hold talks and introduce the federalism topic in the constitutional announcement didnt succeed.

The pro-federalism camp realized that their calls are being dismissed and would never be addressed by the NTC and the current transitional leaders. In March 2012 a surprising announcement came from Benghazi when thousands of political and tribal leaders announced the formation of the Barqa Regional Council and requested semi-autonomy to run their own affairs. The call was immediately confronted by the central authorities in Tripoli. Also, anti-federalism and pro-federalism rallies were hold soon after the announcement.

The Barqa Regional Council continues to plan for the future in order to exert some form of authority over the eastern region in Libya. The council announced recently the establishment of the Barqa Guard Force that is currently positioned on the western borders of Barqa in the Red Valley area.

The Barqa Regional Council has launched a satellite channel to promote their call for federalism, and is expected to announce an executive council for the region soon. The chairman of the Barqa council Elzoubair al-Senussi called for Libyans to boycott the elections, and called them a political game by which Tripolitania is seeking to exert control over Libya on the basis of population superiority. Elzoubair, asked for a constitution to be drafted first and only then general elections can be held. Otherwise, the National Assembly seats should be redistributed equally between the three old provinces.

The calls for federalism are becoming louder and are gaining more support even within the candidates for the National Assembly in eastern Libya, who have been trying to suggest ways by which this issue can be resolved. Other candidates announced the withdrawal of their candidacy in protest over the allocation of seats and the elections in their current form.

Past Perspectives

In 1951 Libya gained independence as a federal monarchy, and was headed by King Idris as head of state, with succession to his designated heirs. The executive branch of the authority consisted of a prime minister and his cabinet designated by the king but also responsible and accountable to the lower house of a bicameral legislature of the then Libyan Parliament. The upper house consisted of eight representatives from each of the three old provinces (Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan). Local autonomy in the provinces was exercised through provincial governments and legislatures as granted and protected by the constitution. Benghazi and Tripoli served alternately as the national capital for the country as stated in the constitution.

After the first general elections, which were held on February 19, 1952, political parties were abolished. The National Congress Party, which had campaigned against a federal form of government, was defeated throughout the country. Also, provincial and regional ties continued to be more important than national ones, with some historians arguing that such arrangement led to wide-spread corruption in local government. Such claim is far from being accurate, the corruption was as wide spread within central government as it was within provincial government, and the reason behind that are poor practices and mechanisms for effective governance on local and national level in the newly established Libyan state. However, such arrangement ensured the encouraging of local political participation and local ownership. Also, in a federal system of governance, federal and provincial governments were constantly in dispute over their respective spheres of authority. Such problem could be overcome through clear and unambiguous definition and outlining of the powers for both national and provincial governments and safeguarded by the constitutions, and also by having and independent and effective supreme constitutional court to act as an arbitrary as and when required.

Federalism in Libya was abolished in April 1963, when the then Prime Minister Muhi ad Din Fakini secured adoption by parliament of a bill, that abolished the federal form of government, establishing in its place a unitary, monarchical state with a dominant central government, the real reasons behind such arrangement vary from one account to another. One account suggests that the reasons behind such bill were purely economic and lobbied for by oil companies to avoid paying taxes twice to provincial and national governments, while another account suggests the reasons behind such legislation were to reduce inefficiencies and tackle corruption, however, corrupt practices and inefficiencies continued to exist beyond the abolition of the federal system and never improved during the unitary system era. By legislation, the historical divisions of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan were to be eliminated and the country divided into ten new provinces, each headed by an appointed governor. The legislature revised the constitution in 1963 to reflect the change from a federal to a unitary state. All these significant changes happened without proper consultation with the people of Libya and no referendum took place, and thus the legitimacy of such changes remains questionable, as well as, the real reasons behind them.

Mohamed Eljarh is a UK based Libyan academic researcher and political, social development activist. He is from the city of Tobruk in Eastern Libya. [Email: ]. You can follow him on Twitter: @Eljarh

Copyright 2012 Mohamed Eljarh


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