After 17th, Feb 2011 (when Libyan’s started the ‘day of rage’ against a military crackdown by the country’s former strongman Muammar Gaddafi), a group of people mostly from the East emerged as federalism supporters. The federalist movement demanded federalism in Libya as it was applied in 1949 for regional autonomy. They faced oppositions from all Libyan regions, including the East. I opposed them at first for several reasons. However, things have changed in the last 4 years that we all could be wrong about the federation. We should clearly understand that there are reasons behind federalists movement. The only thing we did for them is accusing them for splitting Libya.
The main reason behind the rise of the movement is neglect of 42 years. The East is known for its popular opposition to Gaddafi, who neglected the region on purpose. He managed to reduce the region’s political power by keeping most of Libya’s institutions in Tripoli, from where he controlled the entire country. He also moved some public entities –such as the National Oil Corporation and the Libyan Airlines — from Benghazi, where those were originally based, to Tripoli. People were fed up with this continuous neglect, especially with a centralized government.
Gaddafi built his empire in Tripoli, 1000 kilometers away from Benghazi. He built a powerful centralized government that controlled everything. The other Libyan parts didn’t have any authority to get things done fast. Every legal aspect needed to be authorized (signed) in Tripoli first. Therefore, people faced delays to get their work done by the government. Personally, I suffered a lot due to this centralized governance.
This neglect came with geographical obstacles. Libya has a huge landmass, most of which is uninhabited. The three regions (east, south, and west) are not directly connected. They are divided by this huge desert in the middle. Traveling from Benghazi to Tripoli by car is the same distance between Georgia and New York (I guess). The only difference between the two routes is that there is nothing between Tripoli and Benghazi. This geographical obstacle will multiply the citizens pains if a centralized government controls their lives from 1000 kilometers away.
That truth is that natural division created cultural divisions as well. There are cultural differences between the three regions. For example, each region has different languages and accents. This cultural variation is obvious in today’s crisis. The different regions take sides in the ongoing civil war.
Many Libyans say that Gaddafi neglected the entire country, which is true as well. But no one denies the fact that historically East was neglected the most when compared to the other regions. Libya started from Barga (Cyrenaica), the history says that, when King Idris united the three regions to create one country. In addition, the eastern part was the stronghold of the most fierce resistance to the Italian colonialists. People of Cyrenaica are proud of this short history. In other words, Cyrenaica has a unique history and identity, and Gaddafi simply ignored these facts.
One of the most important aspect of this power politics has remained Libya’s oil resources. Most of the country’s oilfields are located in Cyrenaica, which the centralized government controlled. For more than 60 years, oil revenues were distributed unequally. People in the East didn’t mind sharing these resources equally with their compatriots. However, when people suffer by inequality, they will struggle for their rights first, and fair share in oil resources is the first thing they will they seek because oilfields were located in their lands.
Examples of successful federations are plenty in today’s world. India and the UAE are good examples in this regard. Then we have examples of Iraq and Sudan where federalism failed. We have to distinguish between decentralization and federation. But most of federalists are shaky about the new decentralization law (empowering the local authorities instead of local governments). They keep saying it’s not the solution to Libya’s problems.
“The solution is adoption of federalism, while each region cleans its house,” one of federalist told me. The solution could be empowering the three regions and tribal areas while keeping the strong united federal government.
Adopting a federal structure is not going to be easy, especially in these times. One of the issue is the boarders. Each region will claim their geographical boarder. There is a debate now between people from Tripoli and Cyrenaica about where are the historical boarders for each region. Instead, we should adopt only the administrative boarders.
Many people say federalist movment started with the wrong people who are fighting for the right cause. Federalism is like the crack. If we keep neglecting it, it would become larger and larger and to destroy everything. There is a new group in Cyrenaica asking for independence now. Libya could split into three or more countries. The number of people who have become federalist is increasing everyday nowadays as Libya is divided into two governments. We have to deal with them as soon as possible. Either by adopting federalism or creating something that fixes all issues. The upcoming constitution is the key for creating the best solution.
Mutaz Gedalla is an architect at Assarh Engineering Consultancy and a Lecturer at Benghazi University’s Architectural Department. He runs a blog wakeupbenghazi.com. An unedited version of this article first appeared onwakeupbenghazi.com. He can be followed on Twitter at @mutaz20042000