Federalists in Libya up their game ahead of the constitution

One of the biggest complexities of Libya's revolution involves the relationship between the central government and the provinces, which have often enjoyed considerable powers of self-rule at various moments throughout Libyan history. Muammar Qaddafi did his best to stamp out memories of strong regional power, but since the fall of his government two years ago, local identities have reasserted themselves with a vengeance.

On Saturday, June 1, Ahmed Zubair al-Senussi, the leader of the self-proclaimed government in the eastern province of Cyrenaica, issued a declaration of semi-independence. From now on, he said in his speech, Cyrenaica will be a "self-governing region." He made his proclamation in front of a big, jubilant audience gathered in the city of El Marj; the increasing presence of the black Cyrenaica flag -- the inspiration for Libya's national flag -- is a vivid reminder of the regional pressures facing the Libyan authorities as they embark on drafting a new constitution. 


Senussi chose the timing for his remarks carefully. It was on June 1, 1949, that King Idris al-Senussi declared the independence of the Emirate of Cyrenaica from the British, paving the way for the formation of the United Kingdom of Libya two years later. And yes, the similarity in the two men's name is no accident: Today's Senussi is a distant relative of the king, who ruled Libya until 1969. The Cyrenaican leader served for a while on the post-Qaddafi National Transitional Council before resigning to run the regional government in Cyrenaica. 

Of course, the tricky part of all this is that the authority of Senussi's regional administration, the Cyrenaica Council, remains unclear, and it's entirely uncertain how it will be able to implement its plans for autonomy. The Council does, however, enjoy the support of powerful tribal factions who are concerned about maintaining the rule of law in a country awash in weapons and rival militias. Over the past few weeks, armed militias affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood and the city of Misrata demonstrated their muscle by taking over government ministries in Tripoli and pressuring to pass the controversial Political Isolation Law.

Cyrenaica's federalists have been pushing for a decentralized government structure in Libya since their first declaration of autonomy in March 2012. The federalists complain that the central government has long excluded the oil-rich province from its fair share of Libya's wealth. Regional leaders are also worried by the weakness of the central government and its failure to establish control on the ground.

The day after Cyrenaica's declaration of autonomy, lawmakers in Tripoli announced that they would form a committee to formulate a response. The committee would seek to reach out to the federalists in Cyrenaica to find a way forward and prevent any escalations to the situation. The General National Council (GNC), the interim legislature, has been very cautious in its reaction to the situation, since they're all too aware that any further escalation of the situation could result in armed confrontations with the federalist or perhaps even prompt them to try to seize eastern oil installations.

During his Saturday speech to a rally in the town of al-Marj, Senussi specifically outlined his vision that Cyrenaica would be "a federal region within the framework of the Libyan state that will be governed in accordance with the 1951 constitutional frame and will establish its own regional government and its own parliament to run the affairs of Cyrenaica." Going a step further, he even requested that the central government deposit the region's budget into the Central Bank branch in the Cyrenaican capital of Benghazi. But his speech left out any sort of specific timetable for implementing autonomy. 

Senussi also aimed his remarks at the international community. He promised to abide by all international treaties and conventions with an emphasis on women and child rights. He also included soothing words for Libya's neighbors, promising to fight terrorism and illegal immigration. 

Opponents of federalism in Libya maintain that the declaration amounts to the independence of Cyrenaica and separation from the rest of Libya. The federalists themselves, however, insist that their efforts to promote federalism are not intended to compromise the unity of the Libyan state. Of course, the present manifest weakness of the central government in Libya isn't calculated to assuage such fears. 

Perhaps the most striking aspect of Senussi's declaration was its rejection of the Political Isolation Law, which, the federalists say, was passed "at gunpoint." This makes the federalists the first political movement in Libya to publicly and strongly oppose the controversial law. In this sense, Senussi's declaration actually gives the central government some extra political capital to oppose the unreasonable demands made by the militias that have been seeking to expand their influence since the liberation from Qaddafi's regime. 

Despite all their recent talk about the urgent need for a national dialogue in Libya, the country's politicians and officials have so far failed miserably at translating their words into actions. If this declaration by the federalists actually serves to kick-start the long awaited national dialogue, it could actually help to open a path toward a safer and healthier environment for drafting the country's constitution. 

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here



Democracy Lab Weekly Brief, June 03, 2013

Firat Demir explores the grievances that have prompted Turks to take to the streets to protest the policies of their government.

Vidar Helgesen makes the case for incorporating democracy benchmarks in the next round of global development goals.

Mac Margolis reports on a setback in the case against a former Guatemalan dictator accused of genocide -- and what it says about the rule of law in Latin America.

Twenty years later, Karen J. Coates takes a skeptical look at the legacy of the ambitious United Nations peacekeeping efforts in Cambodia.

Mohamed Eljarh writes about the resignation of Libya's president, Mohamed al-Magariaf, as the result of a tough new law targeting former officials of the Qaddafi regime.

Juan Nagel examines at the ominous decline of Globovisión, one of the last bastions of free speech in Venezuela.

And Mohamed El Dahshan reports on a new campaign against domestic violence in Saudi Arabia.

And now for this week's recommended reads:

The German Marshal Fund offers a must-read analysis of the growing disconnect between government and the governed in Europe and the United States.

International IDEA and the Center for Constitutional Transitions at New York University present a new paper comparing the constitutional transitions in Egypt and Tunisia.

The U.S. National Endowment for Democracy offers a study of the role of think tanks in emerging democracies, showing how they play a vital role in promoting discussion and spreading ideas.

Writing in The London Review of Books, Patrick Coburn explains how the stalemated Syrian civil war is breaking down the post-colonial order of the Middle East.

Radio Free Asia reports on the historic truce between the Burmese government and Kachin separatists that could mark a watershed in the country's long history of ethnic conflict. The International Crisis Group's Jim Della-Giacoma dissects a new law proposed by a regional government in Burma that limits the number of children that can be born to Muslim families. Human Rights Watch assails Burma's failure to demobilize child soldiers.

In Foreign Policy, James Traub argues that Somalia is finally leaving the ranks of the world's failed states.

Writing for Time, Rania Abouzeid details how Libyan weapons are making their way to Syrian rebels.

John Campbell blogs for the Council on Foreign Relations about Robert Mugabe's recent attacks on Nelson Mandela, accused by Mugabe of being "soft on whites."

And finally, on the eve of June 4, The South China Morning Post recounts the fate of a little-known Chinese democracy activist, Wang Bingzhang, who is serving out a life sentence in jail. (He's just marked the end of his tenth year of imprisonment.)