Libya should embrace federalism – The Guardian

Just three months before elections take place in post-Gaddafi Libya,clashes between rival revolutionary brigades took place yet again on Tuesday in the southern city of Sabha, leaving more than 30 dead. New Libya is yet to be stabilised: it lacks an effective interim government and it lacks national security forces to impose law and order. These problems persist largely because there is still no consensus on the future definition of the country. Militias refuse to disarm and seek to translate their revolutionary status into political power, while the regions remain disenchanted with the new ruling powers in Tripoli.

These problems became apparent two weeks ago when clashes in Benghazi over power-sharing arrangements wounded at least five people and killed one. Those clashes followed events a week before when close to 3,000 tribal figures and representatives in Benghazi, the de facto capital of the uprising and the country’s second largest city, declared the autonomous and federal region of Barqa, with Benghazi as its capital.

The move toward federalism is controversial but Libyans should embrace it. The concept is a sensitive one largely because it has become synonymous with partition. The contrary is true though. What federalism ultimately means for Libya is less power for the capital and, therefore, a series of benefits that in the long term will protect the interests of the population. These include preserving Libya’s territorial integrity and the harmony of its people, since federalism will ultimately be about the division of power rather than, for example, the division of competing ethnic and ideological groups. The decentralisation that federalism promotes is one that Libyans have been embracing and to which they owe the success of their revolution, given the loose structure that the uprising took shape over the course of nine-months.

While the National Transitional Council was known to the world as the official voice and opposition entity, it was equally a conduit and mouthpiece for the opposition, crucial in garnering international support, aid and arms but not necessarily pivotal since it later became known that brigades had received aid and arms from the Gulf and other states – independently of the NTC. In other words, there was no central control of the revolution. The current political/security framework in the country, including independent revolutionary brigades tied to semi-independent major cities like Misrata – which acts like a state within a state – as well as the NTC’s lack of authority is a product of the revolution and provides an ideal environment for federalist authority.

Libyans should embrace federalism as a power-sharing mechanism because, in taking away Tripoli’s powers, it seeks to ensure the capital does not become too strong and yet another dictatorial base. Many of the concerns that prompted Benghazi’s declaration of autonomy, as well as militias’ refusal to disarm and join a national army, centre on this fear (as well as the interim government’s failure to fulfil its obligations, its neglect of the regions and shortcomings in relation to transparency).

This has much to do with the lack of trust among the country’s new ruling elite, rival power bases and the distrust and fears among the population as a whole, natural since the country is recovering from 40 years of dictatorial rule. Will elections and representative governance remedy this? Perhaps but it is more likely that this process, dependent on reconciliation, law and order, transparency and stabilisation as a whole, will take many years to complete.

That, of course, assumes Libya will go on to progress, and avoid regression, after the democratic process is started in June when a 200-member national assembly will be elected to draft the new constitution. The competition for a stake in the future of the country may not be underpinned by widespread violence or civil war but the potential for it is there and could be amplified when competing groups jostle for positions of power, like control of the military.

The military was feared and, therefore, deliberately kept weak by Gaddafi himself, as a means of preserving his control. If and when new Libya decides to have a decent national army, powerful enough to impose law and order and rein in any militias, challenges will begin to arise over who or what group heads it since many will fear its personalisation by leading groups and use against rivals. Fundamentally, Libya has avoided civil war because the militias are the supreme authority; in other words, they are yet to be challenged by a respectable force and it remains to be seen whether they will back down in the event their interests are undermined by an equally superior opponent.

If the army is to remain weak and the militias are kept intact, then they should be integrated into a representative and proper power-sharing mechanism: federalism. In other words, sustain their current military control but as part of a regulated framework underpinned by dispute-resolution mechanisms and one that makes them more organised, efficient and accountable forces able to not just protect their local regions but also Libya’s borders.

Libya’s local councils, all of which had at least one representative within the NTC during the revolution and some of which acted independently, have proven themselves as established structures representative of their local constituents and able to tend to their needs, as successful elections in Misrata recently showed.

They should be combined, emboldened and their powers expanded as part of federal regions, an arrangement that gives them the constitutional and legal right to exploit the country’s potential and develop their local economies free from the deficiencies that centralised authority may bring. In other words, they should not wait for centralised authority to take shape and function before they steer the country toward a path of stability and democratic governance.

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