Can a federal system unite Libyans?

Can a federal system unite Libyans?
As tensions continue to rise for Libya’s new unitary government, Moez Abeidi reflects on whether a federal governing system, once used to unite the country under the 1951 constitution, could be the answer to ongoing divisions and instability.
6 min read
27 May, 2022
The last 11 years have highlighted the need for reunification amongst the Libyan people. [GETTY]

After the recent failure of Fathi Bashagha’s government to enter the capital – and their subsequent expulsion – many are concerned over what it will take to keep Libyans united.

Some, however, foreshadowed this reality years ago.

Shortly after the 2011 civil war, and the ousting of the then-leader Muammar Gaddafi, many in the eastern region of Cyrenaica started calling for a new federal regime. On the 6th of March 2012, the "Cyrenaican Transitional Council" issued a declaration of autonomy, but this move was quickly rejected by the National Transitional Council in Tripoli.

The main arguments put forward in support of a federal governing structure in Libya, include: the cultural, social, and ethnic differences that existed, the landmass of the country, and the limiting of power that federalism provides.

There is certainly a case that could be made for such a model. Of the 25 federal countries that exist in the world, their citizens make up around 40% of the world population. In other words, federal systems have been able to largely unite over 3 billion people under 25 national identities.

If the past decade has not proven already, majority rule by one group does not go down well in Libya. Half-a-dozen unitary governments can attest to this. A clear solution to this problem lies in a political system designed to disperse power and give representation to all subdivisions of the Libyan population.

''A federal system was used to unite the country under the 1951 constitution of the United Kingdom of Libya. This political system was amended in 1963 and dissolved in 1969 when Gaddafi took power, leaving many Cyrenaicans to feel marginalised as the institutions and government offices of the then-co-capital, Benghazi, were mostly moved to Tripoli.''

What is often overlooked is the very history of Libya, which largely explains the current crisis. Many fail to realise that Libya formed as a political unity between Tripolitania, Fezzan, and the then-independent Emirate of Cyrenaica.

A federal system was used to unite the country under the 1951 constitution of the United Kingdom of Libya. This political system was amended in 1963 and dissolved in 1969 when Gaddafi took power, leaving many Cyrenaicans to feel marginalised as the institutions and government offices of the then-co-capital, Benghazi, were mostly moved to Tripoli.

In addition to the regional tensions, there is also an ethnic divide in Libya. A unitary system which insists on standardising a Libyan identity, whilst marginalising others, is doomed to failure. In a federal Libya, voters could choose leaders based on the benefit they bring to their regions, without fear of isolating other Libyans.

Out of the 8 largest countries by landmass, 7 are federations, whereas only 25 of the total 195 UN-recognised countries are federal. Thus, we can be confident in assuming there is a correlation between a federal system and a country’s landmass.

In fact, it is argued that unitary governments of large countries find it difficult to manage and meet the needs of all regions of the state from the capital city. Hence why many large countries opt to distribute the power between subnational regions.

As for Libya, being the 16th largest country in the world and the 4th largest in Africa, a strong argument for federalism can be made based on landmass alone. However, in addition to its size, Libya is the 6th least densely populated country in the world. This has the effect of making the country seem larger to the inhabitants, especially when one considers the lack of options for transportation.

To make matters more complicated, Libya also has significant geographic boundaries between the three historical regions. The Gulf of Sidra separates Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, and the Sahara Desert isolates Fezzan.

However, perhaps the most obvious argument to make in favour of federalism for modern Libya, is the dispersion of power. For over a decade the country has not been unified by one central power, and after various governments and failed elections, the country is more divided than ever.

It is thus not surprising that the government offered by the Libyan parliament earlier this year has not yet been successful in entering Tripoli and replacing the Government of National Unity. In the early morning of May 17th 2022, Bashagha may have played his final card in ruling from Tripoli. By being forced out the capital, a clear warning has been sent to his government if they attempt to enter Tripoli again.

Without offering a considerable reason to garner support and agreement in Libya, the new government’s future seems bleak. Perhaps the only difference in approach of this government to the previous governments expelled from Tripoli, is the insistence of it to operate away from Cyrenaica – to avoid another perceived “East vs West” conflict. However, it is hard to see how effective this will be.

In this current political climate, the country’s leaders are engaged in a power struggle that threatens the very existence of the Libyan state. Whilst the political differences are widely understood, the demographic differences are often overlooked. A federal system has the potential to solve these differences by limiting the power given to any one leader or group.

A would-be dictator would find it difficult to abuse their power when it is dispersed across different states. Seeing as one of the biggest fears Libyans have in candidates is their potential of plunging the country into a dictatorship. A federalist solution can ease these worries.

When the National Transitional Council rejected the Cyrenaican Transitional Council’s declaration of autonomy and called for federalism, the main argument used was that a federation will only divide the country and lead to the dissolving of Libya. Notwithstanding the arguments given in favour of federalism, the public largely agreed.

Many took to the streets in various Libyan cities to protest against calls for federalism. In some ways this is understandable given the context at the time. The public was still largely bonded by the events of the previous year which ended a 42-year rule.

Many, simply, did not understand the new proposed political system and the reasoning behind it, and opted for the more familiar one. However, the last 11 years have made it clear that the country is in need of a reunification; considering a federal system may just be a way forward.

Moez Abeidi is a Libyan writer from Benghazi with a special interest in Middle Eastern and North African politics, particularly the Libyan conflict.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.