Dual Identity for Libyans off the table?

October 29, 2012

By Belachew Mekuria Fikre, Addis Ababa University Centre for Human Rights

The transition to democracy in Libya is on-going. So far, the people have only succeeded to untie themselves from the dictator’s iron fist. Before they start to feel what it means to live in freedom, the ethnic and tribal divides are being drawn as the not so new fault lines for yet another chapter of conflict. What one could reasonably ask, therefore, is would it be a prudent move if a dual identity through the federal set up is at least discussed to be put in place for the new Libya?

Bases for being suspicious of the pitfalls on decentralised governance under the rubrics of federalism are abounding both legitimate and usually unfounded. One may legitimately be wary of disintegration and loss of nationalistic identity where federal systems are designed purely on ethnic lines. On the other hand, people become generally pessimistic of a peaceful future for states if/when federal state structure is adopted. One may nonetheless doubt the legitimacy of fears for impending conflict and insecurity as an inevitable follow up to the adoption of federal systems of governance. It is important to note however that the question is not whether federal systems are intrinsically prone to internal conflict or not. It is rather ‘the how’ question that largely dictates the successes or failures of the federal project in the future.

Libya is now at cross-roads of becoming a nation with dual identity whereby as the proponent of the federalist project-Ahmed al-Sanussi interjected, Libyans would have to say ‘I am Libyan first, a Barqan [or any other group’s name] second.’ The other option would be to continue as a nation-state and thus hold the country together by any means. The task of fixing the age old grievances of the hitherto forgotten provinces would require the exercise of the utmost wisdom and readiness to make even the unlikely compromises. I would argue that if such compromise is meant a constitutional bargain that devolves significant political power to the provinces that claim a recognised sub-national identity, that must be the correct path of transitioning. Otherwise, to openly declare a resolve as was done by Mustafa Abdel Jalil (the Chairman of the Transitional National Council) to ‘hold the nation together by force if necessary’ would only sustain the violence, rather than creating a peaceful Libya for Libyans.

Unlike Egypt and Tunisia, where the state apparatuses have not been affected, the Arab Spring in Libya resulted on a complete dismemberment of the autocratic institutions requiring a total overhaul. Accordingly, a transition that could qualify as just, fair and sustainable needs to address critical governance issues, including the guarantee for group rights to self-govern their own affairs. This should not be an option that the ruling elites or other nationalists reject from the outset for fear of its apparent future implications on the nation’s integrity. Ultimately, the people’s voice must be heard from end to end to decide on the matter, and not just that of the minority Tripoleans. One single lesson that the revolution has thought us is people’s voice must be heard if a regime, whether mature or in transition, has to sustain itself. If they choose to declare:

We, the representatives of the people of Libya from Cyrenaica, Tripolitonia, and the Fezzan…Having agreed and determined to form a union between us…and having decided and determined to establish a democratic independent sovereign State which will guarantee the national unity, safeguard domestic tranquillity, provide the means for common defence, secure the establishment of justice, guarantee the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity and promote economic and social progress and the general welfare…,

as they did in the 1951 constitution (as amended Dec 8, 1962, and April 15, 1063), then so be it. This had clearly laid down the aspirations of a federal system without strictly calling itself as one, and thus could have been tagged as ‘federalism without a federal constitution.’

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