By Karim Mezran & Mohamed Eljarh

The French intellectual Jean Baudrillard once said, “It is always the same: once you are liberated, you are forced to ask who you are.”


In the case of Libya, this question should have been at the center of every political initiative immediately following the collapse of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime.

Libya’s new leadership had the opportunity to convene a national dialogue in an effort to explore questions of national identity and a new vision for a national mission.

Unfortunately, the Libyan elites who emerged from the 2011 civil war did not make national dialogue a priority, opting to appease local forces—armed and political—rather than to undertake the difficult but critical task of nation-building.

Today, the country’s local leaders are engaged in the struggle for power and resources that threatens the very existence of the Libyan state.

In the absence of a strong central government that could bolster national unity, the transitional authorities’ actions—or lack thereof—in the immediate aftermath of Qaddafi’s ouster inadvertently empowered local forces and entrenched their interests.

As a result, Libya has experienced utter fragmentation, prompting its people to return to their most basic allegiances of family, tribe, and city.

Soon after the uprising, some political segments in the eastern provinces advocated a federalist system based on the three historical regions of Libya—Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east, and Fezzan in the south.

These calls did not take root because they did not reflect realities on the ground; old regional identities no longer have the same strength as they once did. Today, the three regions are much more diverse because of high levels of urbanization over the last forty years.

Although a unitary, decentralized system remains the best choice to realize the post-civil war aspirations of a stable, democratic country, Libya’s heightened and deepened divisions compel a new thinking about political legitimacy and state structure.

Instead of insisting on the formation of a strong, central government as the core of a decentralized political system, a more productive approach would be to revisit the concept of federalism.

This may be the only way to maintain a semblance of unity that could preserve the Libyan nation, secure its borders, provide basic services to all its citizens, revitalize national infrastructure, and effectively utilize its economic resources.

The Case for Federalism

Could federalism be the answer to Libya’s current challenges? It will not immediately solve the underlying causes of the country’s ongoing struggle over power and resources—that is, mistrust in the political process and institutions due to the central authorities’ inability or unwillingness to adequately respond to regional and local demands.

Eastern Libya’s current calls for federalism are founded on fears of marginalization and domination of the political landscape by one political or regional group.

These concerns are especially rooted in the uneven population distribution in favor of the western provinces (Tripolitania), as well as the Qaddafi regime’s forty-year neglect of the eastern part of the country.

It is critical, therefore, that a new governing system in Libya disincentivizes any one group or alliance from attempting to concentrate power in one locale from which it controls the whole country.

A federal governing structure that takes into account issues such as political participation in the country’s central institutions, increased economic opportunities for the eastern region, and cultural rights and recognition for the country’s ethnic minorities could be a good start to rebuilding confidence between the

For the purposes of this analysis, federalism refers to an arrangement that eases the burden on the central government by shifting authorities and responsibilities to regional and local administrations, thus providing a mechanism for honoring local interests without compromising national unity or the existence of the state.

The authors propose an approach whereby local communities determine the parameters of geographical unity and craft new regions.

With the devolution of powers, each one of these regions would enjoy the highest degree of autonomy possible, leaving the central government to administer only matters pertaining to defense, foreign affairs, and the distribution of economic resources.

The latter would require strict agreement that the central government would dispense monetary assistance proportionally based on population and geographic size, thereby allowing the local governments to expend funds on the issues over which they have jurisdiction, such as education and local police.

Libya’s Experience with Federalism

Libya experimented with a federalist system in 1951. The monarchy was established as a federal entity comprising the three regions of Cyrenaica, Fezzan, and Tripolitania.

This endeavor grew out of two competing pressures. First, Great Britain asserted its power by appointing its protégé, Idriss al-Senussi, then emir of Cyrenaica, to the Libyan throne.

At the same time, however, western Tripolitanians continued to agitate to fight for a unitary republic. The federalist system seemed an intelligent move at the time, one that would allow the country to be united while distinct local and regional entities maintained some autonomy.

However, by 1959, the system proved bureaucratically cumbersome, economically costly, and politically complicated. Four years later, as soon as Libya obtained enough revenues from oil sales to wean itself off foreign aid, authorities abandoned federalism and tightened central control.

Qaddafi took centralization to an extreme. Abolishing any form of effective local government, the regime centralized every kind of decision in Tripoli—from the political to the administrative to the fiscal.

In his attempt to bolster transnational identities, Qaddafi paid little attention to local needs and realities except for when it served his divide and rule approach to consolidating his grip on power.

Present-Day Libya

Given this disastrous and destructive experience with centralization, and a history of Tripoli neglecting the eastern provinces, it is not surprising that after the fall of the Qaddafi regime, some elites from the east called for a return to a federalist model.

They asserted that such a model would allow for a more equitable distribution of resources and ensure development of the eastern provinces, where most resources lie.

Despite genuine grievances, the calls to revive the old three-region model are misguided, as developments in the last few years demonstrate that even the eastern province of Cyrenaica is highly divided.

Instead, today’s situation calls for the adoption of an alternative federal model based on different geographical, cultural, and regional dynamics.

Present-day Libya comprises many different local realities trying to exist and prosper within a highly anarchical context. In this patchwork landscape, it is difficult to make the case for national allegiances, considering that some divisions are ideological (as in the case of Islamists versus secularists) while others are local (Zintan versus Misrata).

These multifaceted fractures are manifesting themselves in political and armed struggles that undermine stability and rule of law throughout the country.

Libya has an internationally recognized parliament, the House of Representatives, which was elected on June 25, 2014, with only 20 percent of the populace casting ballots due to boycotts by some minorities, apathy among youth, and general insecurity in large swathes of the country.

The parliament meets in the far eastern city of Tobruk and cannot convene in its constitutional seat of Benghazi, where battles are raging between the so-called national army and Islamist militias, nor in the capital Tripoli, which is controlled by an alliance of Misratan and Islamist militias.

Similarly, the government led by caretaker Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thinni meets in the city of Bayda but does not control any other part of the country.

Meanwhile, Misratan militias that seized control of much of Tripolitania revived the former parliament, the General National Congress, and propped up a rival government in the capital.

In the mountains immediately south of the capital, the Zintani militias confront their Berber neighbors and other rival militias. Between Tobruk and Bayda lies Derna, where extremists declared an Islamic emirate.

Farther west, around the city of Ajdabiya, rogue militias supporting former revolutionary commander Ibrahim Jadhran control most of the oil facilities. In the south, where tribal allegiances dominate, single tribes control other important oil installations.

The far south of the country is practically lost to any central authority and is dominated by quarreling Tuareg, Tebu, and Arab tribes.

Evolution of the Eastern Federalist Movement

Libya’s federalist movement has alternated between violent and nonviolent phases.

On March 6, 2012, the Cyrenaica Transitional Council (CTC) united thousands of tribal, military, and political figures, who gathered in Benghazi to demand the establishment of a federal governing structure in Libya based on the country’s 1951 constitution, under which Libya was divided into the three historical, federal states.

In August 2013, Jadhran laid siege to Libya’s main oil terminals, attempting to impose by force the movement’s vision for a federal governing structure.

Though his supporters continue to control key oil installations, his efforts ultimately failed to advance the federalist agenda. Since their official declaration in March 2012, the federalists faced both political and physical attacks.

The then-ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) and its chairman Mustafa Abduljalil, who relocated to Tripoli immediately after the capture and killing of Qaddafi, accused the federalists of wanting to divide the country.

On the streets of Benghazi, armed anti-federalist men fired on protesters at pro-federalism rallies on multiple occasions. In response, the federalists boycotted the political process in the country and unilaterally withdrew their recognition of the country’s central government.

The CTC did not resort to violence as it sought to realize its goals, even though some federalist hardliners within its ranks issued threats that they would.

The central Libyan authorities, however, failed to engage the federalists constructively or offer any guarantees for an inclusive political process and equitable distribution of Libya’s wealth.

The trust deficit increased as Islamist factions—through undemocratic tactics and the use of militias—overpowered and influenced the political process.

A particularly illustrative episode occurred in the spring of 2013 when they seized government buildings, culminating in the forced passage of the controversial political isolation law.

This and subsequent incidents demonstrate that a weak central government is opening up the space for peripheral armed groups to fill the power vacuum.

A year after the federalist movement established its presence, Jadhran, the leader of the Petroleum Facilities Guards in the central region (from Ajdabyia in the east to Sirte in the west), announced the formation of the Cyrenaica Political Bureau, followed shortly by the announcement of a regional government for Cyrenaica.

Jadhran rejected the CTC’s peaceful approach, deciding instead to blockade Libya’s main oil terminals and infrastructure and try to sell oil illegally. His actions drained the central government’s coffers and sent oil prices soaring.

US Navy Seals ultimately intervened in March 2014 to prevent an elicit oil transaction, an incident that triggered a UN Security Council resolution against the illegal sale and purchase of Libyan oil.

With this move, the international community sent a clear message to the federalists that such unilateral moves would not be tolerated. A few weeks later, the central government announced an agreement with the armed federalists to end the oil blockade.

The failure of the armed option encouraged the movement to shift tactics toward formal participation in the parliamentary elections that took place on June 25, 2014. Federalists made significant gains, winning almost half of the sixty seats allocated for Cyrenaica.

In this new phase, federalists within the House of Representatives are seeking to rectify the movement’s reputation as a secessionist or semi-secessionist one, and to present a more nationalist image.

(This analysis was originally published in December 2014)


Karim Mezran – Senior Fellow, Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at Atlantic Council; North Africa Expert; Professor & PhD SAIS Johns Hopkins.

Mohamed Eljarh is a writer for Foreign Policy’s Democracy Lab and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.


Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council studies political transitions and economic conditions in Arab countries and recommends US and European.






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