A new federalism for Libya
Editor's Note: Nasos Mihalakas is a foreign policy expert and contributing analyst for Wikistrat.
By Nasos Mihalakas - Special to CNN
Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, Libya’s road to democracy was going to be the hardest of all the Arab nations in transition. Last month, that process got even more complicated for the Libyan people. At a gathering in Benghazi, around 3,000 political, militia and tribal leaders from eastern Libya (the region known as Barqa or Cyrenaica) announced unilateral plans to begin establishing their own autonomous government.
Overall, the ‘Barqa Council’ maintained that it want the region to remain part of a united Libya, but needed to do this to stop decades of discrimination against the east. However, the conference declared that the eastern state would have its own parliament, police force, courts and capital (Benghazi, the country's second largest city) to run its own affairs. Foreign policy, the national army and oil resources would be left to the central government in the capital Tripoli in western Libya.
The move was vehemently denounced by the leaders of the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Tripoli, who rejected any calls for a federal Libya. Overall, the idea of federalism is very controversial in Libyans, as well as throughout the Arab world. The concept is a sensitive one largely because it has become synonymous with fragmentation and partition.
What Drives Federalism in Eastern Libya?
When liberation was announced in October of 2011, the NTC and the government moved wholesale to Tripoli. That left people in eastern Libya believing that the promise of a decentralized sharing of power was an empty one. Furthermore, despite the vital role tribes played in the fall of Gaddafi’s regime in eastern Libya, there is a clear move by the transitional government and some of the established political parties towards reducing the tribal influence in the Libyan society.
The recently announced elections law for the new 200-member National Assembly, proposes 120 seats for party lists and 80 seats for individual candidates, which will clearly favors political parties as most individual candidates will rely on the tribal support to win their nomination to the National Assembly. The Muslim Brotherhood and other political parties were strongly opposed to the idea of federalism in the country because it would ensure power is concentrated in the hands of tribal leaders instead of political parties.
Furthermore, the new election law awards 102 seats to western regions (including Tripoli), while allocates just 60 to the Barqa region and 38 to the central and southern region. The allocation of National Assembly seats purely by population distribution, ignoring regional representation, contradicts the NTC's own promises.
Finally, many in the east accuse the NTC of continuing to favor the west, just like under Gadhafi’s regime. Not only did the NTC move the interim government to Tripoli in the west, but the majority of Cabinet ministers are from the west. Barqa advocates also point to the presence in Tripoli of powerful militia groups from the western cities of Zintan and Misrata, who impose their will on the ruling authorities.
It’s all about political competition
Libya, like most Middle Eastern states, has weak national social cohesion and feeble national governing institutions. A federal system of governance will empower Libya’s regions thus creating a more robust state that can meet the needs of its people. What is important to remember is that there are the two types of federalism: vertical and horizontal.
Vertical federalism refers to the divisions between a national government and subnational (regional) units, and it usually means more powers to the subnational entities, thus appeasing local tribes and providing a ‘home’ for the many local militias (by integrating them into local security authorities). Vertical division of power will allow a country that never had a functioning system of governance to slowly build a national political infrastructure, while local authorities run the day to day operations.
Horizontal federalism refers to separation of powers within the national government that take into account regional interests, and it could be more appropriate for Libya. Instead of arguing about dividing the country into big or small subnational units, with their own governments and parliaments and armies (which could potentially lead to succession/partition), the focus should be on better integrating local tribes into the national government. This can best be done through a bicameral legislature, where one chamber represents the people proportionally and the other chamber represents the many tribal and regional communities of Libya.
The NTC should not only accept calls for a federal Libya, but also encourage the formation of a federation. For Libya, Federalism should be about the equitable division of power within the national government, through the adequate representation of tribal and regional groups within the national government. A bicameral legislature that represents both the people and the tribes will be a meaningful check on the central government, and will better protect and preserve the many tribal groups that make up the country.
The Need for Consensus Governance
Due to these political developments in the east, the NTC has already announced plans for decentralization that will give more than 50 local councils considerable decision-making powers and discretionary budgets, and it has already performed a partial reconsideration of the allocation of seats in the National Assembly (with more to come) to ensure national consensus and rebuild trust between the people of Libya and the central government.
This is a good start, but more needs to be done by the NTC. Allowing for some form of federalism, with a bicameral legislature and a substantive role for tribes in the legislative and administrative process, could produce governing by consensus. In these uncertain times of the post-Gadhafi transition, governing by consensus will be a much more desirable form of governance.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Nasos Mihalakas.
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