Decentralization in Libya: A long path to restore a functioning state system


The prospect for a Libyan decentralization

Libya’s current situation on the ground, characterized by the presence of hundreds of militias which compete over the management of scarce resources, reflects the fractured nature of the institutional framework. So far, all attempts to reach an agreement at a national level between major factions  mandate proved to be unsuccessful. The top-down approach is not settling down the political stalemate. The internationally recognized government is not able to provide services to the civil population. This opened up to a new approach which recognizes local authorities – city councils and municipalities – as having a major role to play, and which transfer power and responsibilities from the center to periphery. Decentralization and the empowerment of local authorities must be set within the framework of state building and national reconstruction. This can be done by enabling de-centralized councils to collect and spend their own revenue and, as a direct result, increasing political and financial autonomy. Moreover, disarming the armed groups and integrate them into a legitimate state-endorsed structure is to be viewed as a priority, in order to actively build up a credible and lasting stabilization process.

The focus on projecting decentralization is twofold: provide security institutions to the local level, such as municipal police and a local justice system; put in place an educational campaign to inform citizens of duties and rights as well as to create a generation of new politicians supported by significative investments. However, the adoption of a decentralization approach (which would be welcome at a local level) presents several challenges: firstly, the political stalemate at national level resulting in a governance crisis; secondly, how to dismantle the patronage system that makes population dependent on the distribution of subsidies; thirdly, the importance of creating a plan for the fair distribution of oil and revenues. Considering the very nature of the Libyan crisis, decentralization could solve the governance and security crisis from the local level, by granting authority to municipal councils and reabsorbing the militias into the civil structure of the state, being one of the most promising and effective solutions to the current stalemate.

The Libyan political evolution after the collapse of the Qaddafi’s regime

After the collapse of the Qaddafi’s regime, a National Transitional Council was set up led by Mustafa Abdul Jalil, an interim administration international recognized to be the only country’s government. NTC was soon de-legitimized, suffering from problems of internal representation . Without being able to accomplish its purposes, NTC was replaced by the General National Congress (GNC) in 2012, with the aim to draft a constitution within 18 months. The slide into the civil war, from 2012 to 2014, was marked by the controversial Political Isolation Law banning top-ranking Qaddafi-era officials from public service. The stalemate escalated when General Khalifa Haftar launched the Operation Libya Dignity against Islamist in May 2014. The following month, elections went ahead, where liberals and former regime supporters gained the majority of parliamentary seats. A significant number of them, however, moved to Tobruk to set up a parallel general assembly which was immediately declared illegitimate by GNC. From this point onwards, GNC militias triggered a counter-offensive, called Libya Dawn against the newly formed authority in the Eastern Libya.

Therefore, Libya is de facto divided into at least two main broad factions. In Tripolitania, there is an international recognized government led by Fayez al-Serraj, who has little power, without having a security apparatus responsible for any legitimately elected body, leaving the effective control of the capital to militias behind a negotiated deal. Meanwhile in the Cyrenaica, General Khalifa Haftar can count on a cohesive supporting coalition, even though he can count on few men and resources. However, this bloc is considered relatively safer, notwithstanding serious security concerns for the population, including ongoing attacks from jihadist groups as the Islamic State.

Regional and International actors’ geopolitical influence

Alongside these domestic dynamics, several regional and international actors actively took part in the Libya’s transition process. The first group involves Egypt, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Russia. All these players have steadily supported the House of Representative in Tobruk, providing General Haftar with weapons and resources in his effort to drive other groups out of Benghazi and Eastern Libya. Egypt’s strategic reasons to be involved in Libya include the contrast to the Muslim brotherhood, IS and other jihadist groups by setting up a buffer zone on its western border and the exercise of some control over Cyrenaica by getting access to several oil resources. For its part, UAE is mainly interested in containing rival and Islamist forces in the region. As for Russia, Libya represents a good partner in the economic domain for weapons sale and an opportunity to expand its influence in the Mediterranean basin.

The second group consists of countries like Turkey, Qatar and Sudan which decided to put their weight behind the revolutionary forces, and more specifically the Dawn coalition, with Islamist political agendas. The third group includes Libya Western neighbors, Tunisia and Algeria, which are actively taking part in the discussions over the stabilization and future of the country through their diplomatic role. Tunisia’s main problem with Libya revolves around the vulnerable border region, smuggling of weapons and drugs, damaging the economy and causing instability with the infiltration of terrorists, especially linked to al-Qaeda. Algeria, instead, has always followed its foreign policy principles of non-intervention, respecting state sovereignty, by opposing to the NATO intervention in 2011 and supporting a diplomatic resolution to the crisis. Algeria has risen concerns over the lack of control in Libya, which main national security issue is represented by al-Qaeda and Tuareg tribes, which caused instability in the Algeria’s proxy, namely in Mali. Algeria deployed troops, tanks, armored vehicles and airpower to hamper weapons smuggling across the borders, by closing the way to jihadist to get into the country.

The fourth group is made up of Western countries, including Italy, United States and France. Italy puts a lot of efforts to mitigate conflicts between opposite coalition in the Fezzan region, while at the same time increase support for al-Serraj government, by enhancing the security condition in Tripoli. The Italian approach to the southern Libyan region and Tripoli is mainly directed to targeting human trafficking as well as to protecting ENI investments in the northwestern region. France, by contrast, opted for supporting Haftar, considered to be the strong man in Libya today, without having reached any remarkable results so far. The United States was focused on its engagement on counterterrorism, by conducting airstrikes on IS targets around Sirte in the beginning of 2015, whereas under the Trump administration from 2017, the foreign policy over Libya drastically changed, being no longer considered as a priority.

Decentralization: The Palermo conference and Libya’s future

The Italian government organized an international conference in Palermo on 12-13 November 2018 to advance the U.N. sponsored stabilization process (UNSMIL) for Libya and to set ground for the Libyan national conference to be held in January 2019. The conference saw the participation of Fayez al-Serraj and Khalifa Haftar, who was convinced to take part in by the mediating role of Russia and Egypt. The results of the meeting were to foster dialogue between Libyan actors to agree on the roadmap for stabilization, to build up unified institutions, and clear electoral legislations. The new plan for Libya is centered on the re-formation of the economic and financial institutions, with a greater role designed to the armed groups which have the real control on the ground, and the involvement of all those parts excluded from the previous state-building plans.

Considering all these aspects, the future for Libya, stabilization could be only pursued by a merge between top-down (UN) and bottom-up approaches that recognize the need for local authorities to play a major role in the governance. In order to accomplish an effective decentralization, there is a need to have a strong central government which delegates authority, power and resources to municipalities capable of building consensus among the Libyan population, by providing security and basic services. This should also be enabled by a clear legal framework allowing the formalization of the stabilisation process.

Alessandro Biafora

MSc in International Relations at the University of Milan, Italy


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