Libya’s missteps threaten descent into federalism

Decentralisation in the north African state would cause strife, waste, and bloated bureaucracies.

A Libyan man registers for the upcoming
The Libyan Election Commission has delayed national elections from June 19 to July 7 [AFP]

It is finally official: Libya’s elections will be delayed from their scheduled date of June 19 and held on July 7. This unsurprising decision followed on the heels of the Libyan Election Commission repeatedly leaking news about a delay since late April. However, the Commission’s decision to wait until the proverbial eleventh hour before announcing the delay strikes many Libyans and outside observers as representative of the National Transitional Council’s (NTC) many missteps since Gaddafi’s fall and their inability to establish a functioning administration.

It also capped one of the least encouraging weeks in post-Gaddafi Libya’s brief history. On the morning of June 5, militiamen from Tarhouna (50km south of Tripoli) stormed the international airport and President Mustafa Abdel-Jalil instantly caved into their demand that their imprisoned militia leader be released. On Tuesday night, the American Consulate in Benghazi was bombed, likely a revenge for the American assassination of top al-Qaeda official Abu Yahya Al-Libi in a drone strike in Pakistan the previous day. On Thursday, a rally of armed Salafists and Islamists took place along the waterfront in Benghazi. They were campaigning for the immediate imposition of Islamic Sharia law.

Set against this background, the significance of Saturday’s official postponement of the elections comes into clearer focus. The NTC is in control of neither the country nor the bureaucracy. Despite these failings, they must succeed in their most important task, their very reason d’etre: transition power to an elected government. Although the Libyan electorate is seemingly willing to accept this delay without much protest if the elections are delayed further – especially beyond Ramadan which begins on July 20 – a breaking point may be reached whereby the National Transitional Council loses whatever tenuous legitimacy it still possesses.  

Although the Election Commission claims technical factors like readying ballot papers and giving candidates more time to campaign led to the delay, many speculate that the real rationale underlying this song and dance was that if a delay were announced previously, the Election Commission was not yet sure it would be able to hold the elections by the new date. While the Egyptians and Tunisians have both managed to hold their elections on time, the Libyans were not even prepared enough to be able to delay their elections coherently. In short, true to form, uncertainty reigns in post-Gaddafi Libya.

Desire for federalism

But when Libyans do finally go to the polls, they should not conflate their frustration with the National Transitional Council or the Electoral Commission with a perceived need to bifurcate their country into semi-autonomous provinces, or even worse, boycott the electoral process – as some supporters of regional autonomy have threatened to do. Dangerously, the logical leap between upset with the current central government and calls for weakening the institutions of central governance is becoming one of the defining features in Libya’s post-Gaddafi political discourse.          

In today’s Libya, local is king. In late February, Misrata, the country’s third-largest city, held elections for its city council. This council frequently contests the authority of the NTC inside Misrata. In early March, notables in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city and capital of the eastern region of Cyrenaica, announced plans to establish an autonomous Cyrenaican government. In mid-May, Benghazi held its own local elections and some strongly anti-NTC candidates did very well.

Repeated armed clashes in cities like Sebha and Kufra have also led to calls for decentralisation or special regional autonomy arrangements. These calls for the delegation of overlapping, autonomous, and ill-defined powers to local and regional councils – dubbed “federalism” in Libyan political discourse – bear little resemblance to arrangements found in Switzerland, India, or the United States.

Tawerghans cast doubt over Libya election 

Federalism: tried and failed

Poorly informed commentators warn that the country is poised to fracture along tribal and regional lines, often suggesting decentralisation is the solution to Libya’s problems. They forget that the United Kingdom of Libya emerged at independence in 1951 as a federal state. For the next 12 years, four governments sitting in two national and three provincial capitals ruled Libya. Liaison between them was poor, often resulting in conflicting policies and a duplication of services. With the rapid construction of a modern infrastructure after the discovery of oil in 1959, the deficiencies of a federal system became increasingly obvious. In 1963, the king changed Libya into a unitary state. By that time, the number of government employees had mushroomed to 12 per cent of the labour force, then the highest in the world.

In the short term, a decentralised government, with the Oil Ministry in Benghazi, the Culture Ministry in Zintan, and so forth, would be popular with powerful regional constituencies (and their militias). In the long run, it would result in bloated bureaucracies and dysfunctional governance. The related talk of creating 50 local councils and administrative offices, each with its own budget, would add to the confusion and waste.

More dangerous still is the concept of arranging the constitutional convention along the lines of the 1951 precedent. Bewilderingly, this principle was enshrined in a late March amendment to the draft NTC constitution – seemingly as a gesture of appeasement to the Cyrenaican federalists. It entails that the 200-person elected National Assembly select 20 unelected members from each of Tripolitania, Fezzan, and Cyrenaica to draft the constitution. This method would give far more weight to Fezzan and Cyrenaica than is their due demographically, and would severely short-change Tripolitania. In 1951, this method was imposed by Britain via their accomplice, the UN High Commissioner, Adrian Pelt, to secure Western interests in Libya. In 2012, it could serve to tip the scales in favour of counter-productive federalism.

Building a new Libya

Instead of returning to past practice, Libya should move forward and seize the opportunity to diversify its economy and strengthen its institutions. The Libyan people are intelligent, hard-working, entrepreneurial, and capable of the highest ethical standards. Unfortunately, the Gaddafi regime did not promote and reward these virtues. Advancement in his command economy more often depended on family, clan, and tribal ties or other forms of nepotism and cronyism. The new Libya requires the rapid creation of nation-wide institutions and the development of the human resources necessary to improve productivity, and guarantee competitiveness in the global economy. History suggests these goals are incompatible with excessive decentralisation and overlapping jurisdictions.

The proponents of federalism want to decide taxes and budgets at the municipal and provincial levels – a sure recipe for gridlock. One of the few positive legacies of Gaddafi’s rule was his construction of extensive oil and water pipelines that linked the provinces together. The bulk of Libya’s oil is extracted in Cyrenaica and brought via pipelines to the Sirte Basin, and the majority of Libya’s groundwater comes from aquifers in southern Cyrenaica but is consumed in the populous areas of Western Tripolitania. A return to a federal model would endanger these gains, unleashing competition between the provinces over these strategic resources. It would also weaken the central government, making it difficult to improve security and secure the nation’s borders.

The myriad shortcomings of the interim government point to an alternative: the careful delegation of limited powers to the local bodies formed during the uprising, linking them to the central government. Misratans and Benghazians should run municipal affairs through their new democratically elected local councils – but only as representatives of the central government, not as their own fiefdoms. In post-Gaddafi Libya, local and regional bodies must have a say, but federalism is not the best way to give them that voice.  

Jason Pack researches Libyan history at Cambridge University and is President of Ronald Bruce St John is the author of several books on Libya, including Libya: From Colony to Revolution (2012) and Libya: Continuity and Change (2011).