(This is part two in a series that compares how Libya is currently working towards creating a stronger, united country, an issue that echoes the deep debates that arose in the American Revolutionary War )
After suffering more than four decades of control by a mad dictator, Libya is now slowly emerging from the despotic shadows. However, a new political quandary has emerged, or more appropriately, resurfaced. Libya, a land of contrasts, with a diverse history and ethnic background, is now struggling to unite itself following the fall of the despised Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. For all of his faults, Gaddafi managed to quell any regional differences, particularly among the three Ottoman Empire-delineated provinces, Tripolitania, Fezzan, and Cyrenaica (also known as Barqa), through his authoritarian rule. Now, five months after his death, Libyans are beginning to ask themselves if a powerful central authority is needed to secure the country’s future, or if it is better to seek the path of decentralisation and follow a federalised system of governance. Such concerns came to a head on 06 March 2012, when Libya set off a media firestorm after thousands of Benghazi-based tribal leaders and militia commanders (without seeking the approval of local citizens) declared the eastern Barqa region to be a semi-autonomous state. Although the media was quick to point to the event as the “beginning of the end” of a united Libya, the announcement was far from being as drastic as it initially appeared, as the actual public opinion, even in Benghazi, regarding the issue of federalism is split. Political debates revolving around the issue are rampant, with Libyans often taking to cafes to voice their opinion on federalism, while store clerks have been overheard arguing with customers on the very same issue, scenes which are reminiscent of the wake of the American Revolution. As was the case in the United States following the Declaration of Independence, Libyans are now grappling with whether or not the country will become a loose confederation of states, or transition toward a unified and democratic force to be reckoned with.
A “Confederated” Libya…
The oil-rich region of Barqa, formerly known as Cyrenaica, stretches from Gaddafi’s embattled hometown of Sirte, toward the border region with Egypt, and includes among its cities, “launch pad of the 2011 uprising”, Benghazi. The eastern port city of Benghazi has been particularly rife with debates revolving around federalism, and has been beset by numerous protests in recent days. On 04 March 2012, protests first erupted throughout the city, with a hand full of demonstrators speaking out against calls for the establishment of federalism in the country, saying, “Libya is one”. Out of all the regions in Libya, the areas surrounding Benghazi are believed to have the highest number of those in favour of decentralisation, and there are many driving factors behind this support. For decades Benghazians have repeatedly voiced their concerns about being marginalised during Gaddafi’s regime, saying that he clearly favoured the western part of Libya. Due to this apparent favouritism, the living standards of those in Tripolitania have historically been much higher than those in the east, despite the fact that Barqa produces most of the nation’s oil wealth. Additionally, since Benghazi served as ground zero for the successful 2011 uprising, locals have felt that more attention should be paid to their city, instead, Benghazians have seen the National Transitional Council (NTC) pick up and move their headquarters to Tripoli. Despite these concerns, it appears that most Benghazians would prefer to see a united Libya, rather than a confederated Libya. Nevertheless, the possibility of a confederated country is apparent in other cities beset by rebel groups who say they fear giving up their arms to the NTC, which some feel is an unelected central authority that has simply replaced a previous unelected central authority: the Gaddafi regime. Such issues mirror the fallout from the American Revolution. Although the terminology was different (at the time a Federalist was someone who supported a stronger central government (think of most of today’s Tripolitanians), whilst an Anti-Federalist was someone who wanted a decentralised government (think of those seeking a semi-autonomous state in Barqa), the issue is similar and has manifested itself in political debates within the US to this very day.
To those that supported a “Confederated” America, the issue was clear: why should Americans who fought to rid themselves from the control of King George III, an unelected central authority, now support another central authority in the United States? For many Americans, the idea of supporting a stronger central government would threaten local sovereignty, impede on individual rights, including the right to bear arms. The new central government, it was claimed, was simply another form of monarchy. Instead, mirroring the current calls by some leaders in Barqa, the Americans who confusingly enough deemed themselves to be “Anti-Federalists”, believed that the only successful form of government that the newly free colonies could establish was a league of states under the Articles of Confederation.
…Or a Strong Central Government?
Unlike the pockets of supporters in eastern Libya, people in the western part of the country, particularly those in Tripoli, appear to be largely opposed to the idea of decentralisation. For their part, Tripolitanians are of the belief that those seeking a semi-autonomous state are only serving their own agenda, particularly Ahmed Zubair al-Senussi, the great-nephew of King Idris. Although al-Senussi said he simply believes that more power should reside in local cities, such as Tripoli and Benghazi, there are concerns that he may be trying his hand at trying to assert more power. Additionally, there are fears that if Barqa were to separate, the country’s most valued source of revenue, oil, would disappear. Even for many Barqa-based Libyans, the recent announcement by tribal leaders that the region would become “semi-autonomous” was absurd, with some saying that the declaration was made up of an “incoherent group of Libyans” who have no formal authority to declare anything without the input of Benghazians. This is, of course, an incredible irony. If those leaders who are calling for semi-autonomy truly cared about their local communities lack of representation at a national level, it would certainly be helpful if they at the very least, took a vote from local citizens on the issue.
Such backing for a strong central government was noted in the aftermath of the American Revolution. Those supporting a stronger government authority pointed out the flaws of the Articles of Confederation, saying they were poorly constructed as they allowed the Continental Congress the ability to sign treaties or declare war, but only if all of the thirteen former colonies unanimously voted to do so. Seeing how difficult it is to get today’s US Congress to ratify a treaty with 2/3 of the vote, a unanimous agreement was always going to be practically impossible. Such problems were further brought to light when Massachusetts was unable to deal with a local farmers’ uprising, known as the Shays’ Rebellion. Paralleling the current situation in Libya, the US proved unable to manage unrest by armed farmers who were plagued by the burgeoning country’s poor economic situation and high debt. In order to ensure that such problems never arose again, fifty-five delegates from across the former colonies met in Philadelphia in 1787 to discuss a bicameral legislature, balanced representation between states, as well as checks and balances. Deemed the Constitutional Convention, the meeting also saw the proposal of the US Constitution, which would eventually quell concerns from Anti-Federalists who saw the establishment of a central government as an assault on their individual liberties, by introducing the Bill of Rights.
Although it is too early to tell what direction Libya will take with regards to the centralisation versus decentralisation debate, perhaps the country would do well to look upon the fallout from the US revolution, and use it as a guide. In the end, only Libyans can decide for themselves what their country will become. And just like the United States, perhaps controversial issues will remain an ongoing debate. It is perhaps interesting to note that, with the passage of the American Bill of Rights, most of those opposed to a stronger central authority in the United States felt relieved, and later largely abandoned the idea of having a confederated country. It is with this in mind, that it may be beneficial for the Libyan officials who emerge victorious from the country’s scheduled 23 June 2012 elections, to take a look at adopting a similar type of a document, one that allays the fears of those who wish never again to see another Gaddafi-like figure emerge in the shadows, and that provides local communities with the chance to represent themselves on a national level.