Does Federalism Have a Future in Libya?

In the wake of Libya’s 2011 revolution, eastern leaders feared that they would once again become second class citizens. The perceived domination by Tripolitanians of the National Transition Council (NTC)—the de facto government established during the revolution; the alleged marginalization of Cyrenaica; and the strong influence of militias from Tripoli, Misrata, and Zintan on the government seemed to confirm these worries. Repeated government promises to move significant public entities, like the headquarters of the National Oil Corporation (NOC) and Libyan Airlines, to Benghazi failed to materialize.

Cyrenaicans in a Post-Qaddafi Libya

On March 6, 2012, a group of tribal and military leaders established the Cyrenaica Transitional Council (CTC)—renamed in October 2013 to the Council of Cyrenaica in Libya (CCL). Ahmed al-Senussi, the grandnephew of King Idris I and Libya´s longest incarcerated political prisoner, was appointed the leader. Abu Bakr Buera, a professor of business administration, was another prominent founding member. Key CCL demands included the transformation of Libya into a federal state, the creation of a regional parliament, local control over security and domestic policy, and a newly established judicial system. NTC head Mustafa Adbel Jalil, himself from Al Bayda in eastern Libya, rejected the demands, pledging to defend the unity of the country, and sincere negotiations with the federalists never took place.

The group’s decision not to run in general elections in 2012 resulted in the further political marginalization of the federalists. As Libya geared up for General National Congress (GNC) elections in July 2012, the CCL chose to boycott the elections in opposition to the distribution of seats by population, rather than equally between Libya’s three historic regions.

Federalists and the LPA

Realizing their mistake of non-participation in 2012, the federalists ran in the 2014 House of Representatives (HoR) elections, winning almost half of the 60 seats allocated for Cyrenaica. This made the group around Abu Bakr Buera, now president of the federalist National Union Party, one of the most influential blocs in Libya’s parliament. They benefited mainly from the decision by many Tripolitanian representatives to boycott the HoR sessions in Tobruk.

After the Government of National Accord (GNA), established by the UN-brokered Libyan Political Agreement (LPA), moved to Tripoli in March 2016, Cyrenaicans, among them HoR members and tribal leaders, expressed concern over the influence of Tripolitanian militias and Islamists on the government, and have been among those members refusing to endorse the GNA.

The obvious powerlessness and ineptitude of the GNA in the face of the militias and Islamists as well as the perceived overwhelming influence of the Misratans within the UN-supported government confirms federalist beliefs that a democratic government could not survive in Tripoli. They argue that based on the precedent of unfavorable legislation in the form of the election and political isolation laws, and the fact that most Islamists and Misrata militias support the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries and other Islamist groups in their fight against the Libyan National Army (LNA), a just representation of the East is not realistic. Therefore, remaining under the rule of a central government would mean the continued neglect of Cyrenaica as well as the ongoing exploitation of its natural resources.

While the concrete political demands of federalists remain unclear, the reimplementation of the adapted federalist 1951 constitution (or a similar one) is a common element in most of their statements. If the other Libyan regions prevent such a constitution, a self-declared autonomy could become the objective. Preconditions for this include wide local support, the ability to control the production (and preferably also the selling) of oil, and physical control of the borders. Limited international support, in particular from Egypt, or at least tacit acceptance is also required.

For the time being, however, a separation from Libya is not on the agenda. The federalists are fully aware, that such a move would trigger fierce resistance, not only within Libya, but also internationally. Without at least some international support, such a move would certainly fail. But while differences between east and west continue to grow, as long as the Central Bank of Libya, the National Oil Corporation, and the Libyan Investment Authority remain as national institutions—a separation would be very difficult.

Obstacles to Self-Determination

If Libya transforms into a federal state or Cyrenaica achieves autonomy, this is a domestic matter, over which the international community has no veto. There are in fact many pitfalls to consider on the path to self-determination—particularly a possible dispute over the border between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. Would it be at the location of the historic site Marble Arch, the border between ancient cities Carthage and Cyrene, which Gaddafi used to delineate the borders of the regions? Or does Cyrenaica extend “from the central coastal city of Sirte [or, to be more precise, from the Wadi Al-Ahmar, the “Red Valley”] to the Egyptian border” as claimed by the CCL?

The latter would have severe consequences. Almost the entire oilfields in the Sirte Basin and all the oil terminals on the coast—significantly more than two-thirds of the hydrocarbon resources—would belong to Cyrenaica.

The border at the Marble Arch does not take current tribal areas into account. This would make things more complicated. It is unlikely that these tribes would accept a split-up easily. If the border is drawn at the Red Valley, the vast majority of the tribal areas would remain cohesive.

Eastern Libya´s strongman General Khalifa Haftar, appointed head of the LNA by the HoR prior to the establishment of the LPA, has yet to make his opinion on federalism public, but based on his public statements it seems to be that he is more a nationalist. However, as he knows that his position relies on the support of eastern tribal leaders—and has revised decisions such as the appointment of senior officers due to pressures from tribal leaders—he would most likely also accept a federalist solution or an autonomy.

It, however, cannot be assumed that the LNA would follow Haftar’s possible orders supporting a breakaway of Cyrenaica. Contrary to what is expected from an army, the LNA is not a homogeneous body. For quite some time, Haftar was the unifying element within this ragtag army, but he is no longer uncontested. Frictions and fault lines have emerged, in particular with regard to the LNA’s position to the GNA and its defense minister, Mahdi Al-Barghathi, who is rejected by most of the LNA.

The declaration of Cyrenaica´s autonomy would also not go unchallenged in the western regions or in Cyrenaica itself. The GNA and most of the western militias would reject it right away, with the Misratans likely seeking to occupy oilfields and oil terminals in the eastern Sirte Basin, as they attempted in 2015. But territory held by the Islamic State (ISIS) around the central coastal city of Sirte is making an advance further along the coast towards the east difficult. In Cyrenaica there are several groups strictly opposing any kind of federalism or autonomy. Among those are the descendants from Misrata who want to keep close ties with their mother city. They, along with several tribes and Islamist groups, are outspoken against federalism, and would likely resort to demonstrations or even armed resistance to prevent Cyrenaica’s autonomy. Radical Islamists, who will not accept to be part of an autonomous eastern region, will also continue the fight for their objective: a conservative Islamist state in Libya. Their presence in Benghazi and Derna, where the LNA has had to station a significant number of troops, will likely prevent it from establishing autonomy by force.

The economy of Cyrenaica, however, would significantly benefit from a functioning autonomy. It is very likely that most of the international oil companies would find in the mid-term some kind of arrangement with the Cyrenaica administration, while accepting antagonizing the government in Tripoli. The focus of the oil production is shifting to the East anyway.

History and current developments strongly indicate that federalism will be high on the agenda in Cyrenaica. If there is no satisfying national solution, eventually a referendum on autonomy could take place to give it a legal foundation. But it cannot be expected that the outcome would be accepted by all the groups in favor of a centralized state, leading to another likely outbreak of violence in Libya. It is, however, doubtful that the fragmented LNA could subdue all the resistance against federalism in Cyrenaica, while at the same time, keeping western militias, like the Misratans, at distance. The reality remains that, in today’s Libya, Federalism will not come by force.

Wolfgang Pusztai is a freelance security and policy analyst. He was the Austrian Defense Attaché to Libya from 2007 to 2012.