Libya: Tripoli (and others) Should Welcome Benghazi’s Demand for Autonomy

Libya

Last week, 3,000 militia and tribal leaders from eastern Libya announced unilateral plans to begin establishing their own autonomous government. They demanded a return to the loose federation that existed before Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi came to power in 1969.

Predictably, the leaders of the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Tripoli rejected these calls. Mustafa Abdel Jalil, head of the National Transitional Council, even claimed that they were inspired by elements loyal to Gaddafi’s old regime.

This is a mistake. Although Libya would in an ideal world be just fine with a unitary government built around a single national assembly, it is more likely to create a robust state that can meet the needs of its people if it empowers its regions.

The country, like most Middle Eastern states, has weak national social cohesion and feeble national governing institutions.

Unified into its current form only in 1951, Libya’s six million people encompass a great number of ethnic, clan, and ideological divisions. Although the population is primarily Arab or a mixture of Arab and Berber ethnicities (with pockets of Touareg and Tebu in the south), its most important divisions are those based on tribal loyalties. The country has about 140 tribes and influential large families, of which no more than 30 are thought to have substantial political influence. The majority of Libyans depend on their tribal connections for everything from protection to finding a job, particularly in the state apparatus.

Libya’s weak and barely legitimate national state institutions make this complex sociopolitical makeup highly combustible.

Benghazi, which was joint capital with Tripoli under King Idris (1951-1969), and eastern Libya have many reasons to worry about being disenfranchised in any new regime. Despite containing most of Libya’s oil wealth, it was neglected throughout Qaddafi’s 42-year reign. The anger this spurred played a major role in catalyzing last year’s revolt (started in the east). After liberation was announced in October, the NTC and the government quickly decided to relocate to Tripoli (the sole capital since 1969), leaving Benghazi behind completely, and giving the impression that promises of a decentralized sharing of power would not be kept. In January, it was decided that over one-half of the seats in a new parliament would be allocated to the western region; the east received only 30 percent of the places.

Meanwhile, the country continues to be lawless, with thousands of former rebel fighters still at large. Gun battles between rival groups have become regular occurrences, taking place even in Tripoli. Tensions continue to flare between tribes; between the youth movement and the NTC; between local Libyans and returning members of the diaspora; between secular and religious groups; and within militia groups.

Benghazi and the rest of the east have legitimate reasons to worry both that they will be neglected again in the future and that the central government will not be able to effectively govern the whole country.

Forging a political settlement among the contending forces on what the fundamental rules of the game are and how political power is to be organized is essential, as Alina Rocha Menocal has argued on ODI’s blog. This requires creating an inclusive regime—including Gaddafi loyalists in some form—that equitably divides the state’s natural resources (primarily oil and gas) between the tribes and other influential forces. Disputes over land rights will also have to be arbitrated using a widely accepted system.

But the lack of administrative, institutional and political capacity makes this exceedingly difficult. The central government is unlikely on its own to build credible and legitimate state institutions that the great majority of the population can trust.

Instead of rushing to elections, as currently planned, Libya would do better to concentrate on finding a modus operandi that maximizes its chance of building a coherent and robust state. This may require substantial time for dialogue, consultation, and the development of a unique model of governance suitable to the country’s context.

Tribes should be asked to play a constructive role, both in this consultation process and in the country’s future system of government. As Dr. Ibrahim Sharqieh, Deputy Director of the Brookings Doha Center (Qatar), writes:

Libyans should capitalise on the structure of their tribal society to bring peace, as strong potential exists on this level. The Libyan tribes can be a stabilising force in the postconflict reconstruction process. Due to their highly respected social standing, tribal leaders can use their moral power to exert influence on the members of their tribe to forgive and reconcile. . . . Tribes in Libya can contribute to improving the security situation and filling the power vacuum, particularly when society is in transition. . . . Libyans may want to consider establishing tribal councils that involve prominent tribal figures to contribute to reconciliation, peace and security during the transitional period.

I would go one step further and make decentralization to regions and tribal groupings (or to urban areas where tribal links have weakened to some extent) a crucial part of any future political agreement, at least until the central government proves it has the capacity to act equitably and competently. Local and regional authorities can manage many of the tasks that matter most to citizens on a daily basis—in education, healthcare, justice, security, and so on.

Leaders need to balance the need to create a strong central authority with the need to integrate preexisting institutions (such as those centered on the tribes). Taking advantage of these instead of simply ignoring them, as often happens in fragile states, offers a better way forward than trying to adopt a Western style top-down model. If the tribes are completely ignored, they will form a parallel power structure that will undermine efforts to improve the functioning and legitimacy of the state.

The government has already made some progress in this area. It recently announced plans to decentralize decision-making and give more power to local councils. But, this is unlikely to be enough.

Libya needs a constructive dialogue among its principal actors on how power and resources will be divided. Regions (and tribes) will need both a generous allotment of these as well as a way to ensure their interests are protected at the national level. Given this context, Tripoli’s rejection of Banghazi’s demands needs to be reconsidered.