Libya is in no better shape today than it was in 2011. In spite of the best efforts of the U.N. Special Envoy for Libya Ghassam Salame and his talented team, there remains no political solution to stabilize and unite the country—bifurcated between a U.N.-backed government in Tripoli (the Government of National Accord), and another in Tobruk (the House of Representatives).
Nonresident Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Strobe Talbott Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology
These main Libyan factions seem uninterested in forming a unified state, preferring instead to blame each other and foreign powers for interfering. And the international community can do very little if Libyans do not change their minds.
If the likelihood of unifying Libya is—for now, at least—only as real as a mirage in the Cyrenaican desert, what are the options? At a high level, serious consideration ought to be given to a federal system in Libya. While I’ve long advocated for this option, facts on the ground have altered what I think is achievable at this stage: Now, a focus on decentralizing authority to the municipal level could be helpful.
Adjusting to the fragmented reality
For almost seven years, the United Nations has sent special envoys to Libya that have sought to help Libyans form a strong central government. In a country with only 6 million inhabitants, it seemed plausible—but no one has succeeded. Top-down approaches are doomed to fail in Libya, because what is and has always been strongest there, is the local reality: Family, tribe, cities. Herein the solution lies.
A few years ago, a top commander told me that adaptation is needed in every war; in politics, too, people need to adapt to changing realities, and outside actors trying to help Libya would do well to take heed. Specifically, Libyan political leaders and their international partners should take seriously the possibility of building a federal system of governance in Libya. Federalism entails some degree of independence for designated areas—recognizing intrinsic diversities—and sharing common national resources.
Actually implementing decentralization is of course harder than deciding it might be a good idea. The tripartition I suggested two years ago—which would involve creating semi-autonomous regions in Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan—at this point seems implausible because the situation has deteriorated, with new divisions within those regions. Amid the extraordinary fragmentation that Libya has experienced since the 2011 war, the municipality and the city should be the foundations for a possible federalist structure.
The core idea I’m proposing centers around strong decentralization. This would mean granting significant power to the municipality, which would in turn be responsible for providing a range of basic services to its district.
Many other countries have instituted versions of strong decentralization. Let’s look at a couple of examples from Europe, for instance:
- Germany is divided into 16 Länder—13 states, plus 3 city-states—each of which has a degree of sovereignty and a constitution (although it cannot conflict with national laws). To simplify, the Länder governs the daily life of its citizens, while the Bund—the federation—governs foreign affairs, national defense, the federal police, and the administration of federal finances. Germany’s system is rooted in the historically strong independence of its regions, and aims to maintain outward-facing unity while maintaining internal multiplicity, although in more recent times, it has become more and more centralized. Looking at Libya and at its particular arrangement, perhaps there could be a similar approach: Three city-states (Tripoli, Sebha, and Benghazi), which represent the three historical regions and a number of provinces.
- Another example could be Switzerland, which has 26 cantons based on the power of more than 2,300 municipalities. Governance responsibilities are divided among the confederation, cantons, and municipalities: Each level has legislative power and executive power, but judicial power is exercised exclusively by the confederation and the cantons.
Federalism makes it possible for national unity and cultural diversity to coexist, particularly when a country is composed of various religious and linguistic groups.
In the face of near-hopeless fragmentation today, strong decentralization can be a tactical solution as Libya works toward improved stability and governance.
I’d propose that the cell of Libya’s federalist structure be the municipality. The devolution of powers would give considerable independence to the municipalities, leaving to the federal state the management of national defense related to border security and the coast guard; the distribution of oil revenues (which must be shared to serve Libya—not a particular faction or some national strongman); the treasury; and foreign affairs. Municipalities, for their part, would be responsible for the daily needs of citizens, like providing education; distributing water, electricity, and health care; and establishing security through a local police that is deeply rooted in the territory. One central issue would be needing to change citizens’ expectations around oil rents and paying little or no taxes. Libyans must pay taxes, which could go indirectly to the federal government—via a tax on gasoline or water, as an example—or directly to the municipality, via paying for health services or school tuition.
Local governments, being closer to their constituents, can better satisfy the needs of their own people—and this approach could insert some much needed legitimacy into Libyan governance.
A bumpy path, but progress
No one says this will be easy, but it is the only viable way I currently see to making political progress in Libya. The solution for Libya is not top-down—rather, it is bottom-up and it is based on different (and in many cases centuries-old) local realities. The United Nations can continue to play an important role, involving political and fiscal experts on decentralization.
The next critical area for action in Libya is in implementing a serious Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program, recognizing that the threat that Libya’s multitude of militias poses to local and national stability. But that will be the subject of another post.
The Libyan puzzle won’t be solved overnight. In Europe, for example, federalist systems developed over centuries. That said, Libyans must ask themselves what kind of country they want, and whether this approach could help them eventually get there.