According to Federica Saini Fasanotti, a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, 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).
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 it have long advocated for this option, facts on the ground have altered what it is thought of being 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 said 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—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 proposed 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.