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.”


Federalism as a Possible Solution for the Contemporary Crisis

A federalist governing structure in Libya based on a decentralized executive branch and centralized legislative branch with limited legislative powers devolved to local and regional municipalities could prove an effective governance choice for post-revolution Libya.

The devolved legislative powers would include budget planning, taxes, and local planning and development, along with responsibility for parks and recreational services, police and housing services, primary health and emergency medical services, management of municipal courts, public transportation services, and public works.

A degree of self-governance would provide institutional solutions that allow the competing factions and local communities to realize their aspirations for ownership over their respective local issues while simultaneously preserving the overall social and territorial integrity of the nation.

To support a federalist structure, successful nationwide institution-building must be driven by a web of relationships between the state and local communities.

The process must be simultaneously bottom-up and top-down. Paradoxically, for the central government to bolster its legitimacy and credibility, it needs to devolve powers and functions to effective local government institutions.

This way, sub national institutions, which are better positioned to respond to the expectations and aspirations of the Libyan people, would demonstrate that the government is capable of providing goods and services to the citizenry, thereby gaining their confidence.

It would essentially be a system of mutual reinforcement between the levels of government that would result in the legitimacy of an overall institutional framework.

The Case for Federalism

Libya is struggling with an unhealthy relationship between a center weakened by regional and political rivalries and peripheral areas that gained strength from the experience of the revolution. How could a federal system help address the current crisis in Libya?

It offers real democratic choice to the voters on the regional-local level within Libya, thus providing opportunities of equal political participation and ownership over local issues.

Federally and constitutionally decentralized systems are more flexible than centralized ones and thus more malleable to effective constitutional engineering.

That is, they provide decision-makers more opportunities to find efficient and practical solutions to the various problems that emerge in fragmented societies like that of Libya today. It mandates clearly defined areas of oversight and jurisdiction exclusively to local governments.

It creates a system that allows local public policy choices in each region to be made autonomously by those elected in that jurisdiction. Thus, local problems are resolved locally, while risks of national sovereignty and security are shared. It helps to eradicate the threat of partition.

Although all of these benefits could also be obtained in a strongly decentralized but still unitary system, such a framework gives the central government the authority to determine which powers to devolve to local administrations.

In a federalist system, however, the locus of authority is in the regional entity, which decides in agreement with the others which powers are to be given to the central government and which it will keep.

In Libya, where national allegiances are breaking down and new regional identities and demands are emerging, a federalist framework would be more appropriate.


Federalism is meeting the fiercest resistance in the west, where the people long feared that the movement provides a cover-up for what they perceive to be the federalists’ real agenda: to secede and take control of most of the east’s oil resources.

For this reason, the western Libyan population favors a strong central government that manages the country’s resources. Due to this view of the federalist movement as secessionist or semi-secessionist, lingering misperceptions permeate the federalism debate.

Political and physical clashes targeting federalists have hindered a healthy discourse, giving those within the federalist camp who are inclined to take up arms a pretext for their actions.

Jadhran’s occupation of the oil fields is a case in point, and has merely reinforced the western population’s suspicions about the federalists’ objective to break away.

Another factor that explains why such suspicions persist is that the federalists are divided among themselves, undermining their own efforts to communicate their political aims.

Supporters of federalism disagree over several issues, including the extent to which powers should be devolved and the geographical makeup of the regions over which local governments would have jurisdiction.

Further exacerbating the lack of cohesion are tribal and communal rivalries, which have prevented the formation of a representative and determined leadership with a coherent strategy on how best to proceed with the federalist agenda within a wider nationalist framework.


Given the current polarization between the various factions, it may be difficult to imagine how a federalist system could be realized in Libya. However, steps taken toward federalism would serve as necessary confidence-building measures that could help to create an environment more conducive to negotiations to resolve the political crisis.

For example, the United Nations could propose a road map that culminates in a federal system that addresses most grievances and demands throughout the country. The elements of that roadmap would include the formation of a national unity government that would carry out a basic program to establish minimum security in the country, persuade the militias to withdraw from the major embattled cities and resource installations, and enable the Constituent Assembly to carry out its work.

The constitution-drafting process underway in Libya provides a potentially effective vehicle for institutionalizing a practical solution to the country’s current crisis. Unfortunately, when the Constituent Assembly conducted an online public opinion survey to gauge citizens’ preferred governance structure for Libya, it did not list federalism as one of the options.

Constituent Assembly members later clarified this as a mistake. This omission caused an uproar among the federalist movement in Libya, with some armed federalists questioning the validity of the assembly’s work.

Libya’s political leaders, especially those within the Constituent Assembly, are in the best position to shape a healthy, constructive debate about federalism.

To succeed, the platforms they provide must be accompanied by a consultative process so that the discourse is extended beyond just the elites. This means creating channels for a sustained national dialogue initiative whereby grassroots communities can vocalize their thoughts, concerns, and suggestions.

The recommendations below seek to address the gaps that might hinder the country from achieving a federalist system, which could create a conducive environment for peacebuilding and reconciliation in post-conflict Libya.

For the Constituent Assembly:

  • The Constituent Assembly should practice transparency and initiate a more consultative approach in order for the debate on Libya’s political system to be productive.
  • Since other national dialogue efforts either failed or stalled, the body should launch a new initiative to hear from local communities on the choice of which political system would be most effective in addressing Libya’s unique challenges. This would serve to demonstrate transparency and inclusiveness and garner buy-in from the wider population.
  • The Constituent Assembly should explore the option of federalism or constitutional decentralization as a potential conflict resolution tool. As the body in charge of drafting the constitution, the assembly possesses a national platform with the responsibility to convene different voices on how federalism might work to address underlying regional and tribal grievances over political inclusiveness and access to resources.
  • Once a system of governance is determined, the assembly must clearly define the separation of powers between the central and local levels. Regardless of the political system, the constitution should, to some extent, give communities a sense of local ownership over local affairs as a mechanism for checks and government. At the very least, the provisions should aim to minimize prospects for a return to dictatorship or authoritarianism.
  • In an effort to address power sharing in a country of many inequities and imbalances, the assembly should consider institutionalizing the direct election of a bicameral parliament, which will address representation by population and geography.
  • The new reality in Libya, with the emergence of strong peripheries struggling for power and resources, necessitates power sharing at the center.

Therefore, the institutional outcome should be a sovereign consociation. For such an arrangement to be successful, it is crucial for the Assembly to draw the internal geographical borders of provinces in the draft constitution before putting it up for referendum.

For Libya’s Leadership and Their International Partners:

The constitution would provide the legal framework for establishing federalism. It will be up to Libya’s broader elected leadership and the international community to institutionalize its practice:

  • Once the constitution is written, it is important to launch a civic responsibility initiative to inculcate a culture of addressing governance issues within the framework of the law of the land. As part of a continued outreach and educational awareness campaign, Libya’s leadership, with support from the international community, should prioritize and provide training about the provinces’ freedoms to self-govern in particular matters and the legal and administrative mechanisms available to each province in governing local affairs.
  • The international community should provide Libya with technical experts and lessons learned from other post-conflict states that have institutionalized devolution of governing powers. The projects should prioritize enhancing clear and effective communication between various levels of government and building the capacity of the central and local governments to fulfill their areas of responsibility.

In the short term, making federalism the winning prize for warring forces harboring deep-seated grievances could bolster negotiations to peacefully resolve the struggles that threaten Libya’s dissolution. In the longer term, robust, comprehensive, and coordinated efforts to institutionalize federalism in an effective, transparent manner could turn Libya into a unified, stable country where diversity is respected and embraced.

(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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