A New Federalism for Libya and the Arab Spring

Posted on | april 11, 2012 | 1 Comment

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. In particular, they demanded a return to the loose federation that existed before Qaddafi came to power in 1969, composed of three regions: Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan.

The conferees said they want their region to remain part of a united Libya, but needed to do this to stop decades of discrimination against the east. In particular, the conference declared that the eastern state, known as Barqa, 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.  Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the National Transitional Council, even claimed that they were inspired by elements loyal to Gaddafi’s old regime.  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.  Even though in the past countries like Egypt, Syria and Iraq attempted to unite through federal systems, for modern Arabs federalism caries many negative connotations, with Sudan’s recent break-up dominating most people’s concerns about federalism.

What Drives Federalism in Eastern Libya?

Undoubtedly, the NTC is partly to blame for the deteriorating situation.  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 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.  Naturally, 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 of the assembly’s 200 seats to western regions (including Tripoli), while allocates just 60 to the Barqa region and 38 to the central and southern region.  But the NTC new election law has failed in some crucial areas. There are no clear provisions governing how political parties should operate and interact.  And the allocation of National Assembly seats purely by population distribution, ignoring regional representation, contradicts the Council’s own promises.

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.  The two militias swept into the capital in the push that toppled Gadhafi and have since positioned themselves around vital institutions, including the airport.

After the liberation, political activity in Benghazi began to decline because decisions are made almost exclusively in Tripoli, away from the “heart” of the revolution, as eastern Libyans see it.  Couple that sentiment with the uneven allocation of seats between east and west under the new election law, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the marginalization of tribal leaders, and the appointment of top government positions to western rebels leaders, and it’s not hard to see how the Barqa declaration came to force.

It’s all about political competition.

Libya, like most Middle Eastern states, has weak national social cohesion and feeble national governing institutions.  Although in an ideal world Libya would be fine with a unitary government built around a single national assembly, it is more likely that empowering its regions will create a more robust state that can meet the needs of its people.  National unity is paramount for a new democracy like Libya, but federalism does not necessarily lead to partition or secession.  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 could mean more powers to the subnational entities, thus appeasing local tribes and providing an outlet for the many 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 might make more sense in the case of 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 including and 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.  However, the focus should be on creating subnational units on the basis of current administrative boundaries (currently 22 administrative units) or the proposed 13 super-districts for the upcoming election.  Boundaries could also be redrawn in order to better reflect the division of tribes, so local tribal leaders and local tribal militias can naturally ‘fold into’ the local governance structure (administrative and military).

What federalism ultimately means for Libya is less power for the capital, but also better protection and preservation of the many tribal groups that make up the country.  Therefore, Federalism should be about the equitable division of power within the national government, through the adequate representation of tribal and regional groups.

Finally, Libyans should embrace federalism as a power-sharing mechanism between east and west as well as between the central government and the regional tribes.  Mistrust between eastern and western regions, like mistrust between the central government and tribal leader might indicate the need for a new capital, along with the new government.  A city other than Tripoli or Benghazi (say Sabha – located in Fezzan – the first largest city after all the major urban costal center of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica) could be more acceptable as a new capital to all parties involved.

The Great Compromise – Bicameral Legislature

Tribes and factions can be vital to the political and economic transition of the Arab Spring nations.  They can fill the gap at the local level, since often in Arab countries with large tribal populations (like Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Jordan, and the Gulf oil monarchies) the state’s local administrative boundaries are drawn mainly on the basis of tribal lines, and local tribal sheiks are the local administrative officials.

For a populous that has always been ruled by strongman (of either royal or military background), it’s only natural to gravitate towards ‘a few good man’ as leaders.  However, the best way forward might be through the constitutional and institutional formalization of the various tribes and ethnic/religious factions, rather than rely on charismatic leaders to represent their respective tribes and factions.  A governance structure which legitimizes the role and place of tribes/factions in every society, in proportion to and in accordance with conditions on the ground, will be more equitable then relying on just a handful of individuals at the executive level for representation of these ethnic/religious factions and tribes.

The key to such institutionalization could be the utilization of bicameral legislatures.  Bicameral legislatures can be ‘the great compromise’ between the people and the many local tribes.  In a democratic society, all political powers must arise from the legislative branch, and by adopting two legislative chambers of equal powers but with divergent jurisdiction the people of the Arab Spring can guarantee the fair representation of all parties involved and they can guard against any overreach of power.

Therefore, the legislative process in Libya should be vested in a bicameral legislature, where one chamber represents the people while the other represents tribes or ethnic/religious sub-group.  Furthermore, both chambers should be equal in power in the legislative process, but with divergent responsibilities.  For example, the people’s chamber might be responsible for selecting/consenting on a prime minister and a cabinet, but the tribal/regional chamber could be responsible for the appointment of judges, ambassadors and military generals.

Competition among the two legislative chambers will help to strengthen the overall legislative process and provide a platform on which tribal and national issues can be addressed (instead of resorting to ‘street justice’).

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.

Furthermore, the Barqa council has recently announced that the second assembly of its leaders will be in mid-April to discuss the upcoming elections, and it is expected that they would refuse to participate in the election unless safeguards are given for the Federal governing system to be adopted in the constitution as was the case in 1951.

As political developments unfold in the Arab Spring, Egypt stands out as a guiding example for all others.  The political rhetoric from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood about power-sharing and an end to totalitarian rule has given way to an obvious power grab.  The Muslim Brotherhood controls both houses of the Egyptian legislature, and is now trying to take over the Presidency as well, thus eliminating any checks and balances (or power-sharing).

The NTC should not make the same mistake in Libya.  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.  Overall, this will be a much more desirable form of governance to the past 40 plus years of centralized totalitarian control by Moammar Gadhafi.


  • Stability in Libya Threatened Amid Struggle for Power, by Mohamed Eljarh.
  • Opinion: The Issue of Federalism, by Hussain Abdulrazzaq Kreiba.
  • Federalism and fragmentation in Libya? Not so fast…, by Sean Kane.
  • Libya: Tripoli (and others) Should Welcome Benghazi’s Demand for Autonomy, by Seth Kaplan.
  • Libya’s ‘federalism’ raises break-up fears, by Ibrahim Majbari.
  • The Prospects for Federal Democracy in Libya, by Mohamed Eljarh.

AUTHOR: Nasos Mihalakas
URL: http://mihalakas.wordpress.com and http://chinatrade.foreignpolicyblogs.com/
E-MAIL: nasos.mihalakas [at] gmail.com


One Response to “A New Federalism for Libya and the Arab Spring”

  1. ArmchairArab
    april 11th, 2012 @ 15:33

    As a Libyan I can tell you that you are greatly over-emphasise the tribal aspect in Libya. Tribal affiliations are not as important as you suggest in the key population centres on the coast, and even in the south where they might be more important, Libyans are right to try and move away from this and develop a more modern society. They shouldn’t be pandering to these groups and re-enforcing regional/tribal divisions.

    Also the notion of moving the capital seems silly to me, in the age of technology and instant electronic communications the gov should be focusing on better service provision via these mechanisms than trying to shift the historical and agreed upon capital to another location.

    As for a bicameral legislature, it sounds good on paper but it’ll lead us to countless blockages when trying to pass desperately needed legislature. Libya needs an efficient legislature to pass laws quickly, we have a huge back log of legislation to catch up on.

    When people talk about decentralisation and especially federalism as some sort of magical solution to all Libya’s problems they greatly ignore the fact that the previous gaddafi government actually suffered from huge administrative inefficiencies and a lack of service provision in local areas.

    Libya needs a carefully managed and implemented national strategy that has to emanate from a central, national government to move forward successfully. What people in the south/east and west need is more presence of the gov, in the form of local offices, government funded libraries and educational centres, post offices etc rather than less. We need to put the cart AFTER the horse and actually assess what the underlying problems are before declaring federalism the uncontested winner.

    Finally as for the barqa council, they represent the iconic example of the backwardness and selfishness of tribal/regional interest groups. If your claim that they will try to blackmail the gov into undemocratically committing to federalism, without a popular consensus then they will have made a very serious mistake.

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