Benghazi is back in the headlines. On March 6, the capital of Libya's 2011 uprising hosted a reported 3,000 tribal figures and leaders from the eastern half of the country. Seeking to marry eastern Libya's status as the historical seat of the country's pre-Qaddafi federal monarchy with local post-revolutionary anxiety, the conference provocatively announced the creation of the federal region of Barqa.
The reaction both within and outside of Libya has been swift. The ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) sharply criticized the declaration. Protests extolling national unity were held across the country and Libya's leading mufti issued a fatwa against federalism. Meanwhile, Egypt, Tunisia, and the Organization of the Islamic Conference issued statements expressing support for a unified Libya and rejecting federalism. An editorial in the London-based pan-Arab daily al-Quds al-Arabi even opined that Qaddafi and his family must feel "vindicated" in their predictions that the country would fragment without them.
The reality is more nuanced than the excited commentary would suggest. The gulf between the "federalism" called for by some easterners and the administrative decentralization broadly favored across Libya is most likely relatively narrow. And even in eastern Libya, support for the federal model advocated for by the self-appointed Interim Council of Barqa appears mixed.
This is not to say there is not valid ground for concern about the direction of events. As recently as late last year the eastern federalism movement could accurately be described as fringe. Several months later, with the east feeling increasingly marginalized and shortchanged in the allocation of seats in elections for Libya's forthcoming constitutional assembly, it represents a significant minority view.
Moreover, in Libya there is a general lack of familiarity with concepts such as federalism and decentralization. The former term is especially charged given the country's historical struggles with state-building and that in the Arab world federalism is often seen as a gateway to partition and division.
As a result there is real potential for the debate over Libya's state structure to escalate emotionally. This was seen in some of the harsher reactions to the Barqa declaration, including rhetoric on the use of force. (On the one hand, statements by central authorities regarding a willingness to use force to stop the self-styled federal region's creation and, on the other, by the Barqa Supreme Military Council that it was willing to fight for autonomy.)
The first major counter point to the narrative of an east-west fragmentation in Libya is that it is not clear that federalism actually enjoys majority support in the east. It is somewhat out of date now and Libya's post-revolutionary political attitudes certainly remain in major flux, but a survey last October of public opinion in the east found that only seven percent of respondents favored a federal system.
Indeed, pre-emptive protests criticizing the Barqa conference were held in Benghazi on March 5. The days after the conference saw anti-Barqa declaration protests in all of the major cities in the east. The local governing councils in Benghazi, Derna, and Tobruk, the first of which is known to have stormy relationship with the NTC, issued formal statements that they did not recognize the Interim Barqa Council and that the NTC remained the sole legitimate representative of the Libyan people. The Benghazi-based Arabian Gulf Oil Company, which produces much of the country's oil, reacted by saying that it remains under the National Oil Company. Corporate insiders were reported as indicating that the company will not follow the Barqa Council.
The second overlooked point of nuance is that even among those in the east who favor federalism, some were not pleased with the Barqa declaration. Beyond discomfort with the self-appointed Barqa Council speaking on behalf of the east on such an important issue, there is a feeling that the rushed announcement threatens to internally divide a part of the country that prides itself on its cohesiveness.
Eastern autonomy proponents also worry that the manner of the controversial declaration has made federalism toxic and untouchable in the rest of the country. And in the near term they are probably correct. Just about every major political movement in Libya has now publicly come out against the Barqa declaration and federalism, including both Islamist and more secular parties.
Finally, the substantive differences between the east and the rest of the country on how much local autonomy should be granted to areas outside of Tripoli do not appear irreconcilable. The core day-to-day complaint that is giving rise to both federalism and decentralization appears to be one and the same. Namely, ordinary Libyans around the country are fed up with having to travel to the distant capital to conduct routine administrative business and access government services.
Major cities in western Libya, such as Misrata, favor strong municipal or provincial authorities with their own independent budgets. In this view of administrative decentralization, there would only be a single (national) parliament and judicial system, but a wide range of authorities would be delegated to local government. Libya's Interim Government has even proposed a draft bill on administrative decentralization, albeit in a hurried fashion in the lead-up to the Barqa conference.
Ironically, in the burgeoning federalism debate, the national authorities and the Interim Barqa Council might be their own worst enemies. Some easterners describe the NTC's opaque governing and decision-making styles as the federalism movement's greatest asset in making its case for regional autonomy. Likewise, the Barqa declaration's equation of federalism with the 1951 model of the then newly independent Libyan state has backfired. Post-World War II Libya was mostly rural, had not yet discovered oil, and consisted of three autonomous regions representing formerly separate self-ruling entities. What may have made sense then appears anachronistic when compared with the changed socio-economic, demographic, and political conditions of modern Libya.
How then might this stoppable object and resistible force be reconciled? Libyan leaders might first seek to let the temperature cool by recognizing that federalism and decentralization are legitimate issues for discussion.
But the authorities could also point out that these issues are best negotiated in the writing of the new Libyan constitution scheduled to take place after elections in June. The reported recent decision by the NTC to amend Libya's constitutional roadmap should help in making this case. (If confirmed the decision would ameliorate eastern Libya's worry of being marginalized in the constitutional drafting process by providing for equal representation of each of Libya's regions in the constitutional commission.)
The interregnum, until the start of the constitution drafting process in the second half of this year, might now be used by Libyans to flesh out real options on decentralization and federalism.
For its part, the Interim Government could publicly detail its mooted law for administrative decentralization. Meanwhile, federalism proponents might develop a federal proposal that does not stir fears of partition by reproducing the 1951 three-region system, for example, a Libyan federation with a greater number of states (to reflect the country's current population map) which gives an unambiguous leading role to the national government on oil revenue sharing, water, and military issues. It could also be advantageous for them to call it something other than federalism.
In the end, differences among Libyans on the structure of their new state are not as far apart as they might have appeared over the last few weeks. A rupture between eastern Libya and the rest of the country on this issue remains eminently avoidable. But making progress on this delicate subject does require a more concrete and constructive exchange than has occurred so far.
Sean Kane is a Truman Security Fellow and the Deputy Team Leader for Libya at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, an independent mediation organization based in Geneva. This article represents his personal views.
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