Libya two years on: Revolution and devolution

Benghazi is giving Tripoli a hard time as federalists continue to mobilise and organise more systematically.

On the second anniversary of the February 17 Revolution, Libya has much to celebrate, especially the concessions made to Benghazi and voices of decentralisation [Reuters]

The Arab Spring states are encountering different degrees of difficulty as far as democratic reconstruction goes. Libya seems right now to be caught in the midst of tension between revolution and devolution.

If sustained, this could shape the brand of a new polity to emerge in Libya, a country facing difficult choices at more than one level. On the second anniversary of the February 17 Revolution, Libya has much to celebrate, especially the concessions made to Benghazi and voices of decentralisation.

Revolutionary tension

There is no revolution without tension – degrees of it colour the various uprisings underway or the aftermath of the ousters of three of the most brutal regimes in the Arab Middle East.

Somehow, there is this naive expectation that the ousters would easily herald democratic orders that rapidly realise dignity and freedom and their associates – social, distributive and transitional justice.

These are the demands that are the core of the disorder fomented continuously in Libya.

There are outstanding issues that are not going to go away until justice sees the light of day. However, justice in the absence of a robust and systematic transitional justice process is not around the corner in Libya.

Tension rages unabated in the country’s west, pitting Misrata against Warfallah (Bani Walid). This is not new but has been worsened by attacks executed by Misrata through militias loyal to the Libyan army.

Back in 2012, Bani Walid kidnapped and tortured youth and members of the media from Misrata. In particular, the assault resulted in the murder of Omran Shaaban. As a way of seeing justice done and defusing tribal tension, the General National Congress (GNC) issued Memorandum No 7 in October 2012.

Amongst other things, the memorandum committed the armed and police forces to bring culprits still at large to justice, and posthumously granting sha’ban allowances reserved for martyrs’ families as well as awarding him the “Order of the Martyr”.

The Arab Awakening
Libya: Through the fire

To the west, ethnic tension is dividing Arab and Amazigh in Zuwarah.

Tribal tension has not escaped southern Libya, and this is aggravated by the presence of groups of African mercenaries – largely translating into sentiments of hatred against Africans in general.

Then there is the most serious tension of all – devolutionary voices and forces compounding “revolutionary” tensions. Benghazi is giving Tripoli a hard time as federalists continue to mobilise and organise more systematically and perhaps, even more effectively, than they did a year ago.

Eastern Libya

In Eastern Libya, the federalists’ voice has not faded away. If anything, the obverse is true.

Recent developments point to the air of fluidity and potential for new riots and turmoil in Eastern Libya. 

In 2012, the country’s Minister of Oil, Abdulrahman Ben Yezza, issued “Resolution No 61 for the year 2012”. The general idea was to create a main branch for the National Oil Corporation in Benghazi – eventually amended by Resolution No 100, 2012, before it was withdrawn.
The crux of the matter behind the resolution was to empower the new Benghazi branch, which can be read as a form of decentralisation in favour of Cyrenaica (Barqa). This makes sense in light of the fact that 80 percent of the oil reserves in Libya are in Barqa/Eastern Libya.

Many, however, including petroleum employees such as in Tripoli’s main headquarters of the oil company, were unhappy with the decision. They protested against a move they interpreted as pandering to Eastern Libya’s quest for devolution. Some regarded it as fanning secession by Barqa and equate the decision with “treason”.

The pressure and protest were such that the Oil Minister had to rescind the decision early in October 2012 (Resolution No 100). Naturally, oil workers in Barqa protested to register their disaffection with the abandoning of plans to create the branch in Benghazi. 

Libya’s Federal party

Currently, one of the main features of Libya’s democratic reconstruction is pluralisation of polity and civil society – both “ruly” and “un-ruly”. The federalism-decentralisation dialectics has been a feature of this pattern of democratic reconstruction.

Tripoli may be more open to decentralisation, whilst voices of federalism have been on the rise in the country’s regions, especially in Barqa.

This is not in any way threatening the state even if it is poised to stoke up the forces of dissent and protest in the foreseeable future.

This question is a political issue that will not go only through political solutions. Even Libya’s interim institutions may not yet be equipped to resolve what might be considered a “structural” problem until such a time when the democratic state’s new structures are all in place.

What is noticeable today is the increasing tendency by those rejecting centralised patterns of governance to emerge or re-emerge, as well as organise and mobilise to represent their political preferences for federalising the post-Gaddafi state.

Nowhere have these forces arrayed against centralised politics made an impact more than in the realm of protests. In this respect, Benghazi – more so than Fezzan – has taken the lead on this front.

This tendency is being institutionalised, and the National Union Party, the first federal party since 1951, has already been formed in Benghazi. It primarily calls for the adoption of political decentralisation and power-sharing.

This is shorthand for adoption of the old federal system, with its three autonomously governed regions – Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan – under an over-arching Federal government.

This power-sharing formula would also entail a return to the old federalist structure of two capitals – Tripoli and Benghazi – in accordance with Article 188 of the 1951 Constitution. 

“Increasingly, Libya’s democratic reconstruction is slowly, but surely, being couched in maximising consensus.”

This preference is echoed in the views of a new bloc named “Benghazi economic capital“. It promotes and champions the idea of Benghazi being upgraded as the second economic capital – an agenda they are advancing on the basis of the contribution made by Eastern Libya to the national economy through oil wealth and major ports.


A key decision taken in July 2012 by the National Transitional Council (NTC) shortly before its dissolution was in favour of the election of the 60-member committee to be tasked with writing the country’s new constitution.

This crisis started when NTC decided to amend Articles in the interim constitutional declaration to defuse looming conflict between federalism supporters and their opponents. Hence, Article 30 was amended stating that crafting the new constitution should follow procedures similar to 1951.

To an extent, the decision was a direct response to the pressure mounted by the Benghazi-based federal movement in June 2012. 

The interim government, especially the General National Congress (GNC), is dithering on this issue and seems inclined to prefer selection to election. This is at the core of tension not only between political currents in Benghazi and Tripoli, but also between centralists and federalists in the new Libya.

The hesitation is spawned by fear that election of the constitutional committee would leave the interim parliament with no say and much less power in deciding the country’s new constitution.

Early January, Congress members started to discuss the option of election. The deliberations point to a lack of consensus and maybe even a tinge of fear that they would play second fiddle to an elected constitutional committee.

The public, at large, surprisingly seems to favour elections of the constitutional committee members, and thus share not the new political elite’s hesitation and fear. One of the most active and popular internet sites, “Libya Al-Mostakbal“, conducted a poll where the results were resoundingly for election and not for selection of the committee.

In fact, this tension may not go away or subside until this is settled amicably and to the satisfaction of the federalists. This polarity is even feeding ideas for new uprisings in Eastern Libya. Some go as far as making a case for a “new revolution”. Regardless, these sentiments should not be under-estimated, so that democratic reconstruction proceeds smoothly and dialogically.


Note how protest in Barqa by the public or through organised political action has shown it could secure concessions from the interim authorities. 

For instance, in a major development following popular calls for revolution in Eastern Libya (or Barqa) on February 15, the National Congress decided to endorse elections of the 60-member committee to draft the constitution. GNC president Mohamed al-Magariaf’s skills of moderating differences have helped secure this concession to Barqa after an initial hesitation and even opposition from many parties. 

As Libya’s revolution enters its second year, President al-Magariaf realises from his neighbourhood how constitution-framing has been a topic of heated debate in Egypt and Tunisia. 

The key tension, in this respect, concerns the necessity for consensus-based – as opposite to partisan or ideological hegemony – constitution-framing processes. Tensions in Egypt and Tunisia illustrate for many Libyans, including GNC members, polity in Eastern Libya and President al-Magariaf, the pitfalls of conflict-ridden constitutions. 

Increasingly, Libya’s democratic reconstruction is slowly, but surely, being couched in maximising consensus. This standard may be one way to discriminate between federalism and decentralisation, cleaving gradually to the latter as one route to keep Libya focused on both unity and democracy.

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).