Federalism is unlikely in Libya, however, decentralization is probable

Wolfram Lacher writes: “Eastern Libya declares autonomy.” In spite of international headlines such as this one, talk of the country’s impending disintegration is misleading. Although the participants at the March 6 Barqa Conference (Barqa is the Arabic name for Cyrenaica, or the region of northeastern Libya) claimed the right to speak for their region, the initiative for self-administration and the move toward federalism triggered furious reactions in Cyrenaica. Given this lack of support in the region itself, the push is unlikely to succeed.

Foreign media coverage of reactions to the initiative focused on anti-federalism demonstrations in Tripoli and the angry response of the chairman of the National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdul Jalil. But this emphasis on the tension between the central government and proponents of northeastern autonomy is misguided. More important were the reactions against the decisions in the northeast itself. The local councils of the area’s major cities – Benghazi, Darna, Bayda and Tobruk, which also saw large demonstrations against federalism – all immediately made clear their opposition to the Barqa Conference’s declaration and refused to recognize its proposed regional council.

In addition, the Muslim Brotherhood – which has an important base in northeastern Libyan cities – called the declaration the work of narrow-based and personal interests. Furthermore, the initiative has not received significant backing from the disparate armed entities that are controlling the northeast. For instance, the region’s most powerful militia grouping, the Union of Revolutionary Brigades (Tajammu Saraya al-Thuwwar), opposed the conference, and the Barqa Military Council (an unofficial grouping of several army units situated in the region) distanced itself from the conference, declaring that it would not get involved in politics.

Proponents of federalism undoubtedly have an influence in Cyrenaica – perhaps more so than in other regions. Leading figures at the Barqa conference included tribal notables as well as intellectuals. The most prominent of these was Ahmad Zubair al-Sanusi. He is a member of the royal family that ruled Libya from 1951 to 1969, and was appointed to head the regional council. But without the local support of the region it claims to govern, the regional council has little chance of actually governing Cyrenaica.

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