Libya’s new ‘feds’: The call of Cyrenaica

Post-Gaddafi Libya faces its latest challenge – one region’s desire for semi-autonomy.

Benghazi meeting
A conference held in Benghazi on Tuesday called for federalism for Libya's eastern region [Reuters]

Exeter, United Kingdom – The state of Libya is on trial. The people of Barqah (or Barga, as pronounced in Libyan dialect) are the first to redefine the state and its internal dynamics. In February 2011 they triggered the revolution that eventually overthrew the Gaddafi dynasty.

On Tuesday – March 6, 2012 – they set in motion a political revolution to federalise Libya. If or when the 60-year political association between Libya’s regions: Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan ceases to exist, the March 6 meeting in Benghazi will be a major catalyst.

Libya has had it revolution. What is next: federalism and devolution; or political discord, schism and dissolution?

 Eastern Libya leaders seek semi- autonomy

When Ahmed al-Zubair al-Senussi, among others, closed the Conference of the People of Cyrenaica, four key points from the day’s deliberations may have stuck in the minds of 3,500 delegates:

  1. The call for unity of all Libyan regions to combat political and administrative marginalisation. The delegates were told that a “charter of honourable partnership” is needed to guarantee Libya’s integrity as a sovereign and independent state based on justice and equality for all citizens and regions.
  2. Declaration of the establishment of federalism in Cyrenaica, and an invitation for the interim government (ie the National Transitional Council, or NTC) to adopt a federal system in all Libya’s regions.
  3. Re-adoption and modernisation of the 1951 Constitution, which was recognised internationally – but which was “illegally” amended in 1963, and then completely discarded following the 1969 coup.
  4. Rejection of the February Election Law adopted by the NTC, for being unjust and unequal for Libya’s various regions.

This was a gathering of the eastern side of Libya and included Barga’s main tribes and clans, tribal elders, civil society, political leaders, activists, military chiefs and other public opinion formulators. It is a mobilisation that has been in the offing for some time.

Dr Abu-Baker Buera of the National Federal Bloc, along with several other notables, has been preparing since July 2011 to promote the idea of federalism after Gaddafi’s fall. 

Among the tribes at this forum were al-‘Abidat, al-‘Awaqeer, al-Bara’isah, al-Magharibah, al-‘Awammah and al-Manfah, a tribe from which hails the legendary Omar Al-Mukhtar, the hero of the anti-Fascist struggle in Libya. Al-Mukhtar was at the forum not only in spirit: his son Mohamed Al-Mukhtar was one of the delegates at the conference. They are Libya’s new “feds”.

Reading between the lines

The conference is underpinned by the following fundamental idea: Cyrenaica did not overthrow one tyrant (from Libya’s western region) to revert to a life under a new hegemon ruling over them from Tripoli (ie the NTC).

To read between the lines, the four points from the Cyrenaica People’s Conference sum up mounting disaffection with the performance of the care-taker central government, headed by Mustafa Abd al-Jalil. Nevertheless, the conference stressed unity in Libya, intending to fend off accusations against the gathering being a separatist political project.

Libya’s oldest political prisoner, septuagenarian Ahmed al-Zubair al-Senussi, opened up the conference. Al-Senussi, who hails from the royal family that ruled Libya until the 1969 coup, has been a critic of the NTC, of which he is a founding member and a representative, from the prisoners’ category. His participation evokes the revivalist tendencies of Cyrenaica statehood, as set forth in Resolution 289 of the United Nations General Assembly in 1949.

This resolution, which established an independent Libyan state, stipulates political association between Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan, the historical regions or quasi-“member states”, which had existed since 642 AD, at the time of the Islamic conquest.

Now, the statist heritage is revitalised by al-Senussi. More importantly, by stating the necessity to found post-Gaddafi Libya on the basis of federalism, al-Senussi and the National Federalist Bloc are not attempting to reinvent the wheel, but simply to revert to the first federalist system founded in 1951.

Thus the delegates have deftly reclaimed the “legal-rational” basis of the federalist project. Egyptian statesman Mahmoud Pasha Azmi is said to have stated that the 1951 Constitution was superior to contemporaneous constitutions.

Tripoli: First among equals?

Three other points about the lack of inequity concern two pressing matters that have alienated Cyrenaica:

First, there is the issue of how many seats were allocated to Barga in the National Congress (the interim parliament assigned to draft the constitution). Cyrenaica was given 60 seats, whereas Tripoli was given 109, according to NTC media.

Logically, what the NTC is proposing is very reasonable. Tripolitania, according to the latest census, has a population of more than 3 million, and Barga has nearly half that number.

Will Cyrenaica’s declaration garner sympathy in Fezzan, Libya’s southwestern region? Musa al-Kawny, an NTC member from Fezzan, seemed to express sympathy for federalism when he suggested adopting the principle of jam’iyyat al-Sitteen (the Committee of 60). According to this principle, laid out in the aforementioned UN Resolution 289, each of the three regions was allocated 20 delegates in a Constituent Assembly.

The idea behind this proposal was that historical and cultural specificity, not demography, should form the basis for the allocation of delegates to the Constituent Assembly. This is the piece of historical legitimacy on which Tuesday’s meeting was founded.

Second, Cyrenaica’s historical pedigree (at one point it had its own autonomous Emirate of Barqah with its own constitution – Dustur al-Barqawi, recognised by Britain), and its economic weight strengthen its case for federalism.

The people of Barga argue that they were marginalised under Gaddafi. The power ration they received from Tripoli was not commensurate with the wealth they produced: 80 per cent of Libya’s proven oil reserves are within its territory, three of the country’s four oil refineries are in Barqah, it has three main ports (al-Herigah, Librigah and Zouitinah), and it sits atop the main oilfields in the heart of the region’s desert.

In fact, if it ever seceded from Libya, Cyrenaica would be one of the richest states in North Africa and the Middle East.

Cyrenaica’s own constituent assembly

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The creation of Cyrenaica’s own Constituent Assembly unhinges the existing rules of political engagement in Libya and forms new ones. For one, it leaves the NTC with a fait accompli: either it goes along with federalism, accepting the implications and responsibilities this entails. For Cyrenaica, failure to revert to the legitimacy of the 1951 Constitution could set in motion a chain reaction of events that may not preclude future dissolution.

The NTC faces a “checkmate”-type scenario in which its guardianship of the post-Gaddafi state is threatened. Cyrenaica has made the first move on a political chess board in which who is “king” is up for grabs.

The NTC has been incompetent. The list is long: the Election Law, the atrocities happening all over Libya, the fate of smaller minorities victimised for past association with the former regime, the absence of transitional justice and a bungled transition. It cannot afford to be incompetent in responding to Cyrenaica’s federalist aspirations. One thing it must avoid is a knee-jerk reaction that further alienates its partners in Cyrenaica and Fezzan.

Discord is part of politics. So are association and dis-association; power-sharing and devolution.

Devolution after revolution

Libya is important for the Arab Spring. The case for or against federalism is a Libyan affair – the days when the Pelts of the world can dictate what happens may be over.

However, one thing is sure: Federalism counts among its exemplars some of the most successful nations on earth: the US, Switzerland, Germany and Australia, a country of which I am a citizen, and whose federalist heritage and achievements I value.

For Libya, there are four points from the great American John Quincy Adams to contemplate:

  1. “An indissoluble link of union,” he says, in reference to his confederated nation, “is in the heart” (“not in the RIGHT”, as he put it): Libyans have to face up to this factor.
  2. “The bonds of political association” will cede to dissolution when there is “collision of interests”: Libya and the NTC must revise their policies and examine the factors corroding political association.
  3. When considering federalism, Libya must think about how it may devolve power from the centre to the regions and decide whether it is better to “part in friendship with each other than to be held together by constraint”.
  4. Ultimately, and on the basis of the above, when federalising Libya to never close the door on the opportunity for “the separated parts to be reunited by the law of political gravitation to the centre”.

Right now in Libya, that ideal “centre” is an undefined entity, leaving open its deconstruction, reconstruction and redefinition.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2009) and The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses (Columbia University Press, 2004).