The recent successes of the opposition forces in Libya have prompted a second outpouring of comparisons between Iraq and Libya as well as another bout of compilations of dos and don’ts in a post-conflict reconstruction environment. As the entire Middle East region goes on holiday for the Eid this week, it is worth reflecting for a moment on one particular aspect of the Iraq-Libya comparison that has failed to receive much attention thus far: The approach adopted by the respective oppositions to questions of territoriality and state structure during their periods of transition.
In Iraq, of course, one of the main watchwords in the post-2003 setting was “federalism”, which thanks to Kurdish and American pressure had been grudgingly accepted by the Shiite Islamists during the opposition conferences of 2002. At first, the Shiite embrace of federalism had been seen mainly as a concession to the Kurdish desire for autonomy within the Kurdish-majority areas, but gradually, some of the Shiite Islamists developed an interest in federalism themselves and tried to combine it with sectarian rhetoric. The crucial point of transformation in this regard appears to have been the negotiations over the Transitional Administrative Law in 2004, in which Adel Abd al-Mahdi of the Shiite Islamist ISCI used the argument that “everything the Kurds have, the Shiites shall have” to make the concept of federalism applicable to all of Iraq. Of course, ISCI’s subsequent attempt at converting the general Shiite population to a pro-federal position proved singularly unsuccessful; nonetheless the damage had been done and today Iraq still struggles with a constitution from 2005 that remains full of contradictions thanks to the premature and unnecessary introduction of federalism as an option also for governorates outside Kurdistan.
It is a refreshing but largely unnoticed sign, therefore, that the new transitional charter of the Libyan opposition does not tinker with the existing state structure in Libya in any way. The charter basically confirms the existing unitary arrangements including Tripoli’s status as the capital. True, there is reference to the flag of the monarchy area – which with its tripartite structure at least does have a federalist origin – but it is fair to say that during the past tumultuous months the old flag has come to signify general anti-Gadhafi sentiment rather than a specific pro-federal stance. Neither “federalism” nor “decentralisation” occurs in the text of the charter at all.
These matters will of course require closer attention and more specific solutions as the process of drafting a new Libyan constitution gets underway. Perhaps the biggest challenge for the international community of think tanks over the coming months is to reflect realistically and soberly on Libya’s limited pre-history as a decentralised and federal polity. For sure, the federal past of the country in the 1950s needs to be acknowledged as a historical fact. But the significant role of international players in deepening regional tensions in Libya in the first half of the twentieth century must also be appreciated. There is no need to repeat this, and the lesson from Iraq is that happy-go-lucky experiments with federalism in a transitional setting – often accompanied by well-meant cheering from political-science pundits in international opinion – may well create more problems than they solve.
In this respect, despite the promising shape of the Libyan charter, there are certainly warning signs out there. As in the case of Iraq (except Kurdistan) native Libyans calling for federalism appear to remain few and far between, although at least some members of the transitional council are known to be thinking along these lines. But already, Michael O’Hanley of the Brookings Institution – who once posed as an expert on Iraqi nation-building before migrating to Libyan issues via Afghanistan - has suggested a “confederal” formula for Libya. Other Western experts are scratching their heads about the “dilemma” of divvying up Libyan oil revenue, creating problems where none may exist and thinking perhaps too much of Alaska and forgetting that the default setting in most of the Middle East is a centralised per-capita distribution formula for oil revenue. From the vantage point of a UK think tank, one Shashank Joshi declares federalism a necessity in the new Libya.
Too many Western commentators seem unable to distinguish between centralism and authoritarianism. An unneccessary extension of federalism to all of Iraq after 2003 created additional problems for a transition that was already problematic and needs not be repeated in Libya.