All Politics Is Local—in Libya, That Could Be an Opportunity

Photo Credit: via Andolou Agency

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on Order from Chaos.

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 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…

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