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Libya: Time for Something Radically New

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The North Africa Journal | By Arezki Daoud | The sacking of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan may be long overdue, but Libya’s problems remain the same with a dysfunctional and divided Congress, and regions and ethnic groups feeling neglected. The country wants to run as a normal nation but there is nothing normal in its current situation.

Consider this: In early March, the so-called February Committee, the country’s small body in charge of amending the 2011 Constitutional Declaration and tasked to establish elections procedures called for presidential elections if legislators failed to draft a new constitution by July. That is all nice but the problem is that at this stage, Libya does not need a constitution per se. It needs either a unifying figure to bring all the constituencies and feuding parties together, or a completely new concept of governance that would save the country from a more severe civil war and an ultimate partition into small territories. Anyone who believes that partition is not possible in the Libyan context should remember the Sudan.

With Zeidan now behind, to the joy of the Islamists in Congress, who can step in to cool tension in Libya?  Who has enough credibility and the respect from the various tribes, militias, and political bosses in the regions to save Libya from complete chaos?  The answer is simple: no one. And so what is the right path forward? 

First let me go through the sad exercise of inventorying the problems Libya is facing right now, and then perhaps propose what may be a controversial idea on the way forward.

Officially, the General National Congress’ no-confidence motion on Zeidan came as a result of efforts by Cyrenaica autonomous leaders to export oil outside of the control of the central government. But that was just one pretext as Zeidan governed over a nation that saw one calamity after another.  It was a pretext because the Islamists and so-called Muslim Brotherhood in Congress have been busy creating roadblocks against any positive development that does not involve their own ideologies and those of their bosses in Qatar or Saudi Arabia, making the weak executive branch of Zeidan even weaker. To start with, the government has no control over the country from a security perspective. Libya’s southern provinces have become open markets for arms and weapons used by Al Qaeda and criminal gangs to terrorize the Sahel and North Africa.  Economically, although the country has some cash reserves in the bank, lower oil export earnings are weighing heavily on the country’s economic prospects. While the country’s leaders in the Zeidan government and in the Congress planned their 2013 budget based on oil production of 1.45 million barrels per day (bpd), the year ended with 993,000 bpd on average. That’s a 38% miss.  Peak production used to be 1.6 million bpd, but because tribes are blocking oil activity, Libya is lucky to produce today 250,000 bpd. 

With these figures, Libya’s budget is off and witnessing severe imbalances. This is because it spends more and produces less. In 2012, Libya produced a near 32% budget surplus. In 2013, a disastrous economic management and chaotic politics led to a budget deficit of nearly 2%.  That’s not such a dramatic number, but going from +32% to -2% is a steep decline. So what does the government do to pay for wages, benefits and subsidies?  It taps into the nation’s financial reserves.

Obviously no one could really blame Ali Zeidan alone for the fate of Libya, as the political environment there is toxic and the country has become one of the most unsafe nations on earth.  Grievances of political and social nature are very difficult to address under the current political system. What the Libyans seek to accomplish by building a homogeneous central government like all other politically bankrupt Arab countries is not responding to the realities on the ground and is bound to fail.  When the Gaddafi regime collapsed, we realized how heterogonous the Libyan society actually was. Gaddafi managed to stifle all grievances and suggested that the Libya people where of the same background. Eventually history showed that he was wrong. Cultural, tribal and ethnic sentiments run high among the various constituencies, so much so that most are now calling for a federal model, and rightly so. A few have even announced regional autonomy. The most talked about declaration of autonomy is that of Cyrenaica in November 2013. Cyrenaica is in the east where Benghazi is based. Less talked about, yet equally important is the October 2013 autonomy announcement of the oil region of Fezzan in the southwest. This is an area where wealthy oil fields have been blockaded by the Touaregs. In the northwest, the Amazighs have also been busy blocking terminals and pipelines. Within Cyrenaica, two federalists have emerged as key power brokers. Ibrahim Jathran controls critical infrastructures in and around Ras Lanuf, Zuweitria and elsewhere. Mabrouk Al-Gaithy Al-Obeidi controls oil infrastructures in Tobruk, further east. With tens of thousands of men in their armies, the central government of Tripoli has no capabilities to start a war with these regions. But even if it does, the move would mean the start of along protracted civil war. 

On the security front, the situation is chaotic. Assassinations, kidnappings, and bombings are daily routines. Confrontations between militias and the civilian populations continue, and the authorities remain powerless.  For the Libyan Congress, the road forward is the same old thing:  complete lack of creativity in crisis management and no political courage to break with policies that don’t work. The Congress is now seeking to replace Zeidan with yet another figure that is mostly going to fail. For now, it has handpicked defense minister Abdullah al-Thinni to act as interim Prime Minister, just for two weeks, giving them enough time to find the next “Zeidan.” The choice of a military man by Congress is an indication that the legislative body wants to flex its muscles and use force as a means to end the political deadlock. This is bad news for the prospect of peace in Libya.

A Controversial Idea: 

So what’s the road forward?  The Libyans do not believe in a central figure to lead the country from comfortable offices in Tripoli. I entirely agree with that view. It is time to recognize that although the Libyans are willing to defend their nation, they are also fond of their local cultures and heritage. The concept of Federalism makes complete sense in the Libyan case. And the way to solve the crisis in Libya is to bring together the elders of each region to form an Elders’ council. This assumes that the regions will have sufficient powers and autonomy to create their own local security and police forces, raise their own taxes, draft their own budgets, promulgate their own laws, all while pledging their belonging to the Libyan nation, as a unified nation.  With each region represented by three elders to establish majority rules, the Council will be tasked to appoint among them a coordinator, who would lead Libya’s executive branch at the central level. His job will be about intra-region policy coordination, national security and defense, foreign affairs; “federal” tax redistribution, handling big infrastructure projects that would link the regions, etc. It is only with the full participation of local communities, which should feel they have a true stake in the system that, such coordinating figure could succeed in creating a consensus on the way forward. The Elders’ council would operate as a corporate board and their chosen coordinator as the CEO. This is how simple national charters or a constitution can be created with everyone’s interests in mind.

If we continue to believe that a central government in Tripoli and a dysfunctional Congress are the salvation of Libya, we are in for a long period of turmoil.

Comments (1 posted):

Hafez Almiladi on 18 March, 2014 10:20:59

I dont believe a council of elders will do much other than muddy the waters. The right approach is to create the environment where direct representation takes place as opposed to "elders" and have a federal government and fedral congress with two houses, in addition to local state governments and parlaments.

In any case moves need to be made towards building together an inclusive national identity.


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