Federalism in Libya: legitimacy and maneuver

د. زياد عقل
* خبير في علم الاجتماع السياسي بوحدة الدراسات المصرية - مركز الأهرام للدراسات السياسية والاستراتيجية

Since the death of Gaddafi last August, events in Libya have been over shadowed and pushed to the periphery of international focus. However, two weeks ago in Benghazi, a conference was held to announce the Eastern part of Libya a federal region under the name “Cyrenaica”. The announcement brought Libya back to the center and signaled signs of tension in the post-revolutionary oil-rich state. The tangible effects of this announcement were exaggerated and directly taken to mean the actual division of the country. The facts on the ground demonstrate that the federal region of Cyrenaica remains a mere political threat that has not yet materialized and an announcement pointing to the birth of a new political current in Libya that seems to be gaining strength. However, what was announced remains very far from implementation. The federal sentiments in Libya are nothing new. Calls and efforts to resurrect the pre-Gaddafi federal regime existed before the revolution as well as after it. What seems to be striking and even provocative is the actual announcement of the federal region. Libya’s “Federal Coalition” could have announced its formation and its platform rather than announcing the establishment of a federal region in a conference attended by 3000 people. The provocative technique reflects different dimensions within the current political scene in Libya. First, it reflects the weakness of the Transitional Council as a political entity and its inability to maintain the position it occupied during the war with Gaddafi and the few months that followed his death. The heroic image of the Transitional Council during the revolution has been tarnished by fatal administrative mistakes and unmet expectations. Second, the provocation reflects another dimension, the lack of a legalizing framework for political institutions in Libya. Despite the multi-party principles that the Transitional Council has endorsed, no legal regulations were put forth to articulate a criteria for the formation of political parties, coalitions and blocks. Third, the provocation reflects the fact of the state’s inability to monopolize force. Despite affirmations that the region will not have its own army, militias were formed under the banner of “Cyrenaica”. In essence, calls for federalism entail two main issues, legitimacy and political maneuver. Fundamentally, declaring a federal region professes the illegitimacy of the Transitional Council in the eyes of the Federal Block. This situation was created as a result of mistakes the Council made in the manner in which it designed the political process in Libya. The share of the Western part of Libya in the new budget exceeds that of the East. In a similar fashion, the Western cities of Libya will have 102 seats in the 200-seat National Assembly due to be elected in 2 months, while 98 seats will be given to the cities of the East and the South. This design brought back fears of marginalization to the citizens of the East and put the legitimacy of the Transitional Council to question. The Council measures the representation weight of each region by the size of population, while the Federal Block views the matter on an equal representation platform that takes into consideration past experiences of exclusion. Population-based representation will indeed open up the door to majority dictatorship and will have an adverse effect on the Southern region that has ethnic minorities more than its effect on the Eastern region. The legitimacy of the Transitional Council’s political process is further challenged by the Federal Block’s resurrection of the 1951 federal constitution, creating not only a rejectionist platform, but also an alternative one. The federal block however realizes the amount of resistance it will face from the transitional council. Therefore, political maneuver is an integral part of the federal announcement. Even if the block fails to implement its federal agenda, it will pose a tangible threat to the council, a threat acute enough to force the council into political compensation. Signs of political compensation already started to appear when the council amended the temporary constitution to give equal representation of the three regions in the constitution writing committee, and further pressure may lead to equal representation in the National Assembly. Federalism in Libya remains to be an elitist platform that includes intellectuals and political activists without strong support from the masses. The federal block is commonly perceived to be a call for division rather than a call for better governance. It is true that citizens in Benghazi are determined to resist any attempts of further marginalization and regional inequality, but their demands are centered on effective decentralization and not federalism. The conflict could indeed escalate especially after the rise of militias on a political platform rather than a regional one. However, the Transitional Council still has the time to implement decentralization that will counter calls for federalism. In any event, the federal block has established itself as a post-revolutionary elite in Libya that will continue to be a significant political force whether federalism is actually implemented or not.

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