USIP's Jason Gluck looks at the debate taking place in Libya today between those who believe a federalist approach will be good for the country - and those who don't.

This month, thousands of Libyans in Tripoli and Benghazi took to the streets chanting “No, no to federalism,” and “Libya is one.” The demonstrations were in response to a statement earlier this month from the Benghazi-based Cyrenaica District Citizens Council, declaring Cyrenaica, which stretches from Sirte in the west to Libya’s eastern border with Egypt, a federal autonomous region. The statement was quickly repudiated by the Benghazi Local Council, but not before Libyan leader Mustapha Abdel Jalil accused some Arab states of supporting “sedition that is happening in the east,” and vowed to defend Libya’s national integrity “with force” if necessary. Subsequent demonstrations in Benghazi led to clashes between pro and anti-federalism opponents, where several people were wounded.

Just like that, Libyans found themselves in the all too common downward spiral of zero-sum federalism politics. Each side sees it vastly differently. The side that favors federalism fears that those opposed to federalism would continue the Qaddafi era’s marginalization of Benghazi and the east – home to the uprising. While those opposed to federalism accuse those who support it of wanting to divide and disintegrate the nation.

The tragic irony is that both views not only distort the other’s position, but make any chance of finding a system of governance that could satisfy both sides’ basic needs much more difficult. Federalism becomes an elusive and stigmatized concept, useful only for the purpose of politicized rhetoric, rather than the malleable form of governance that it actually is.

Federalism, at its most basic level, is a system of governance with at least two levels of government (federal and state, for example), each constitutionally allocated substantial legislative authorities and each primarily elected by its residents. Whatever this definition tells you about federal systems is far outweighed by what it does not. Most notably, by merely describing a state as “federal” almost nothing is known about how the state actually divides powers and resources between the different levels of government. There are highly centralized federations, such as the United States, India, Russia, and Malaysia, for example, as well as highly decentralized unitary states, like Indonesia, France, and the United Kingdom.

Favoritism of certain regions (and the corresponding marginalization of others) is common in dictatorial regimes. Libya under Qaddafi was no exception. In my conversations with residents of Benghazi, I heard numerous tales of easterners having to spend a week or more in Tripoli just to get a commercial license, while basic services that were planned and administered from the capital were described as inefficient and non-responsive to local needs and preferences. Still weary and mistrustful from years of neglect, it is not surprising that residents of Benghazi are now calling for greater authority over local affairs.

It is a positive sign that the National Transitional Council (NTC) leadership is responding. A law on decentralization is currently being considered by the NTC, which, according to Chairman Jalil, would give local councils “budgets and administrative competences to get rid of central rule, which caused Libyans so much suffering in the past.”

That the NTC recognizes the need for greater decentralization, and is willing to introduce it, makes the violence over federalism all the more unnecessary and troubling. Whether the ultimate modality for solving Libya’s governance problems is constitutional federalism or statutory decentralization is not unimportant. But it is certainly less important than resolving the underlying problems themselves. Forsaking politicized rhetoric is a crucial first step towards finding solutions. A second would be a technical examination of comparative governance models – how different countries distribute authorities between federal and sub-national government, how they manage natural resources and share revenue, the optimal number of sub-national units, and mechanisms for inter-governmental relations and dispute resolution, to name just a few issues that are highly variable but central to federalism and decentralization.

An examination of other countries’ experiences with federalism might also reveal that while some federations have eventually split apart, many nations have managed to remain united in large part because of political and governance solutions found in federalism.

Finally, having better framed the issues and identified a range of options, Libyans would be well served by engaging in local and inter-communal dialogues, where mutually acceptable solutions could be identified and discussed. Such dialogues could increase local understanding and support for mechanisms that might eventually be adopted by the forthcoming constitutional commission, and could reduce future demonstrations, recriminations, and the potential for violence in Libya.

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