The Forum in Libya
For much of its history Libya was influenced strongly by, or was under the direct control of, powerful empires and nations from its European, Middle Eastern, and African neighbors. Libya’s strategic position on the Mediterranean Sea made it an attractive shipping and trading centre since ancient times. The Phoenicians and Greeks established trading posts and cities on the coast to enable them to trade with the indigenous Berber peoples that lived along the North African coast. In approximately 74BC, the Romans conquered Libya and annexed it to Rome, and the territory remained a Roman province for over 400 years. During this period Libya was a highly developed, cosmopolitan, and prosperous state, whose citizens shared a common language, legal system, and Roman citizenship. Following the fall of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire ruled the province for approximately another 150 years. However, as their control weakened, rebellious Berber tribes became stronger, and the new Islamic Arab powers from Middle East were exploited this weakness to take control of Libya by the mid 7th Century.
In the following centuries Libya came under the control of various Islamic dynasties, under various levels of autonomy, from the Ummayad, Abbasid, and Fatimid Caliphates. In the early modern period, Libya became a prize in the ongoing competition between European powers and the Ottoman Empire for dominance of Mediterranean trade routes. The Spanish Habsburgs successfully invaded and took control of Libya in the early 16th Century, but were soon ousted by the Ottoman Empire. Through this the Ottomans consolidated its control of the central Maghreb, and the territory of Libya was ruled by a pasha – appointed directly by the sultan in Constantinople – and his corps of janissaries. While there were sporadic successful rebellions against central Ottoman rule over Libya over the next few centuries, broadly the territory remained under the control of Constantinople until the Italians invaded and occupied the country in 1911.
From 1912 to the outbreak of the Second World War, Libya was controlled by the Italian government and military, which settled hundreds of thousands of Italians in the province, and killed a huge proportion of the rebellious Bedouin population. Following the end of the Second World War, the territory was temporarily controlled by the British and French, while Italy relinquished all claims to Libya. In December 1951, Libya declared its independence as the United Kingdom of Libya, a constitutional and hereditary monarch under King Idris, and represented the beginning of the development of the Libyan nation state. The discovery of oil reserves in 1959 enabled the new country to establish a wealthy administration. However, continuing poverty among the citizenry, despite the presence of a wealthy government, and a surge in Arab nationalism around the Middle East and North Africa fostered resentment of the monarchy and political system.
In 1969, a group of military officers led by army officer Muammar Gaddafi staged a successful coup against King Idris. Gaddafi subsequently established an oppressive, totalitarian state, which sponsored a range of paramilitary and terrorist organizations around the world. During 1980s and 1990s Libya was a petro-state and Africa’s wealthiest country. This period was characterized by great inequality with low investment in public infrastructure and institutions. As popular movements overturned government regimes in Tunisia and Egypt as part of the Arab Spring in 2010/2011, the Libyan revolt began in February 2011, escalating into full scale civil war in just a few weeks. By October 2011, the rebels, with the assistance of various Western powers, emerged victorious, and Gaddafi was killed by militia forces. The aftermath of the Libyan uprising has, however, not fostered the development of the peaceful, democratic nation that many hoped. Since late 2011 Libya has been wracked by inter-ethnic and religious conflict, with rival militias and interest groups vying for power in the vacuum that emerged following the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. The international community is now working extensively to stabilize the country, and establish a strong, democratic model of governance that can assert sovereignty over Libyan territory and build an effective, peaceful state.
The project entitled “Supporting Transition in Libya” is funded by the Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) and the Forum is implementing it jointly with the US-based Public International Law & Policy Group (PILPG). While PILPG focuses on the constitutional process, the component implemented by the Forum aims at developing an understanding of federalism and the varied functions it performs in different locales.
With the fall of the Qadhafi regime, federalism has emerged as a highly polarizing issue in the country. Advocates of a federal structure argue that the country be divided into three federal autonomous regions while those opposed equate federalism with secessionism and argue that it will lead to the partition of the country. The demand for federalism is especially strong in the eastern part of the country where people felt neglected during the previous regime and perceive the concentration of power in Tripoli as evidence that decentralization is not a serious consideration. Currently, the NTC is considering a law on decentralization that would give local councils the resources to have a greater say in their affairs. Senior officials in Tripoli, while rejecting calls for regional autonomy, are promoting a program of decentralization that will give more than 50 local councils decision-making power and discretionary budgets.
The Forum will conduct training session for law makers and politicians in Tripoli and Benghazi on comparative federalism and devolution and training session for members of civil society and the media in Tripoli and Benghazi on comparative federalism and devolution. It will also print and distribute the Forum’s primer on federalism in Arabic.