Demonstrations and counter-demonstrations were held across Libya last week in the wake of a unilateral declaration of partial autonomy by tribal and political leaders in the eastern region of Cyrenaica.
The announcement was perceived by many as the start of a process of Libya's disintegration.
Opposition to Cyrenaican self-government was expressed with particular intensity in the capital Tripoli, where thousands gathered in Martyr’s Square to chant “Libya is one” and “No East, no West, Libya nationally united”. Even in Benghazi, Cyrenaica’s first city, fires were lit and a furniture store set ablaze.
But the widespread hostility with which the prospect of a more federal Libya has been met seems out of kilter with the country’s history of devolved rule.
Libya was officially unified in 1934, when its Italian colonial rulers formed a centralised state out of the regions of Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica. Over the course of the next decade, an industrial and transport infrastructure was developed which served to further bind the nation together.
When Libya became independent in 1951, the newly-installed absolute Monarch, King Idris, implemented a federal settlement by devolving significant powers back to the regional capitals. 12 years later, following the discovery of huge reserves of oil beneath Libyan soil, two thirds of which were in Cyrenaican territory, Idris abolished federalism and Libya again became a unitary state.
Under Colonel Gaddafi, who overthrew the Monarchy in 1969, that unity was consolidated as political and economic power became increasingly concentrated in the hands of the central government in Tripoli. This remained the case until the collapse of the Gaddafi dictatorship last year.
Now, with the National Transitional Council (NTC) – the provisional regime in Tripoli – struggling to establish its authority, East Libyans are seizing the opportunity to try to resurrect something approximating the constitutional arrangements of the pre-Gaddafi era.
The term “approximating” is appropriate here because the powers which the Cyrenaican leaders are calling for actually fall considerably short of what is commonly understood as federalism. A federal system is a coalition of autonomous or sovereign states around a single constitution.
The role of the central government is to uphold and enforce the general principles of that constitution, rather than to dictate the specific political and economic arrangements of its component nations, regions or municipalities.
By contrast, the Cyrenaican Provisional Council (CPC) hopes to achieve a high degree of devolution within a unitary state structure. This would involve the creation of a devolved assembly or parliament with legislative authority over everything apart from foreign affairs, defence, and crucially, oil revenues.
The fact that the CPC is willing to allow Cyrenaican oil revenues to remain under the control of the NTC in Tripoli is significant because it indicates a long-term commitment to the Libyan union. This reflects a tradition of Libyan nationalism which, at key points, has proved more powerful than any trends toward regional partition.
For instance, in the late-1940s when Britain and France took control of the country from Italy after the Second World War, their intention was to divide it permanently into separate provinces. However, this plan had to be abandoned in the face of overwhelming local opposition and heavy lobbying from Libyan representatives at the United Nations.
There is then no reason to believe that what East Libyans really want is full independence. Rather, they appear to be motivated by a desire for a local government which understands the specific social and security needs of the area.
Ominously, this nuance seems to be lost on the NTC. Immediately after the CPC made its declaration, NTC head Mustapha Abdel Jalil threatened to resist the “division” of Libya, with military force if necessary.
This sentiment was echoed by Fathi Baja, head of the Political Committee of the NTC, who described the CPC’s declaration as “a blatant call for fragmentation” which should be “rejected it in its entirety”, adding, “we are against divisions and against any move that hurts the unity of the Libyan people". Yet the use of force to secure Libya’s current territorial integrity would almost certainly be counterproductive as well as enormously costly in humanitarian terms.
The history of the break-up of states along national, sub-national, regional or ethnic lines, from Ireland to Yugoslavia, suggests that the appeal of separatist and break-away movements is enhanced when central governments’ attempt to violently suppress or circumvent their aspirations, particularly if those aspirations are legitimate.
Given that the demands being made by East Libyans are far from unreasonable – and, indeed, based on historical precedents – there can be no justification for the NTC’s threats. In fact, if it is genuinely committed to maintaining Libyan unity in the long-term, the NTC should give serious consideration to allowing for the creation of a new system of devolved government.
At the very least, the NTC should enter into negotiations with the CPC in the hope of reaching a peaceful political compromise. Anything else could plunge the country back into civil war.
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