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The Federalism Dimension in Yemen’s Draft Constitution

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 20 January 2015 18:40

After having been leaked for several weeks, a draft proposal for Yemen’s new constitution has finally been officially published online. Among other things, it offers insights into the ongoing struggle about what state structure Yemen should have in the future, with important parallels to similar processes in Iraq and Libya.  The draft constitution defines Yemen as a federal country, with key questions relating to the demarcation of federal units, as well as the division of power between the centre and the projected regions.

As far as administrative divisions are concerned, the draft (article 391) defines Yemen as a country of six regions, of which four will be in the north and two in the south (Aden and Hadramawt). Subunits of the regions are listed, meaning that boundary demarcation will be a relatively minor issue. Additionally, the cities of Sanaa (capital) and Aden (commercial special area) will have separate statuses. The partition of the north into four separate subunits is known to have prompted strong objections from the Shiite-leaning Houthi movement (which senses it will be left short-changed in a way that is not commensurate with its recent military successes) but is in line with previous UN-sponsored proposals.

In this way, the Yemeni draft goes further than the Iraqi constitution in presenting a fully-fledged federal map where the entire country is subdivided into federal regions from the outset. There are also some checks and balances regarding territorial representation at the central government, including provisions for 40% representation of the two southern regions in the first parliament (article 139) and a requirement that senate decisions must enjoy support of at least a third of southern senators (article 143). The president (who, unlike Iraq, will be the main executive) and his deputy are to be elected on a single list representing more than one region (article 180), though the powers of the deputy president are not defined beyond whatever the president decides (see article 194).

The most important issue concerns division of power between the different levels of government. The Yemeni draft is unsatisfactory in this respect, exactly like the Iraqi constitution that was adopted in 2005, and arguably a lot less clear than the recently published Libyan draft constitution. The problem is the way in which the concept of residualism is tackled. In most federations, division of power is defined by a list of powers that are reserved for either the centre or for the subunits exclusively – with everything else (the “residual”) by implication being reserved for the other. There may also be a specific list of shared powers. However, in the Yemen draft constitution there are at least six points related to this. Firstly, there is an enumeration of powers for the central government. Secondly, there is an enumeration of powers for the regions. Thirdly, there is a list of powers for subunits within the federal regions. Fourthly, there is a list of shared areas of government between the centre and the federal regions. Fifthly, there appears to be an attempt at establishing residualism in favour of the regions for anything not specifically mentioned at any level. Sixthly, provision is clearly being made for special autonomies for the two cities with special administrative statuses (Sanaa and Aden) but there is no specification of their exact powers.

As for those powers that are mentioned as exclusive powers of the federal government, beyond the rock-bottom minimum of the likes of weight and measures and external defence, there is national electricity provision as well as “national education”. Both are examples of things that are constitutionally not the exclusive powers of the central government in Iraq but are nonetheless directed from Baghdad in practice. “Shared competencies” between the federal government and the regions include policy areas that are less contested like youth, women’s affairs and sports. On the other hand, a noteworthy item among the powers reserved exclusively for the regions  (article 337) is the right to sign deals for trade and investment. But other “exclusive” areas are less exclusive in reality. For example, confusingly, for both education and environment, a distinction is made between national and local policy, meaning very critical demarcation issues are left for later.

Beyond this, article 338 outlines competencies of subunits in the federal regions (wilayats). This is confusing, especially because there is sometimes no clear specification of whether policy-making or simply the provision of services is intended, for example when public services including water, gas and electricity are mentioned. There is also a contradiction in the way in which powers of subunits of federal regions are already defined by the drafters of the constitution. This  leaves very little room for meaningful content in the stipulated new constitutions of the regions.

On top of this, article 341 seems to establish the principle of residualism in favour of the regions for whatever competencies are not enumerated specifically for either the central government or the local subunits. One might think that oil and gas could be one such residual area but that is not  the case. Instead, separate sections (articles 357 and 387-90) address energy issues, but only by way of generalities, leaving the designation of revenue distribution and the management of the oil sector for future legislation. With vague concepts like “a just (adila) distribution” the Yemeni draft constitution offers even less in terms of guidelines than the hapless Iraqi one from 2005, and much less than the relatively clear Libyan constitutional draft that was released recently.

In sum, the long-winded Yemeni draft constitution provides less clarity than the often contradictive Iraqi constitution of 2005, and much less than the Libyan constitutional draft. With the military situation unfolding rapidly, there is not much in this document that key players can look to in order to save the situation and bring it back to the political track. Quite the contrary, it has been suggested that fury simply over the proposed administrative divisions and the six-way federal scheme was a contributing factor behind the recent moves of the Houthis against the Yemeni president.

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Federalism and Decentralization in Libya’s Constitutional Proposals

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 8 January 2015 14:48

Followers of Iraqi politics in the post-2003 period and the ongoing debate about federalism will likely see parallels to the way the concept of federalism has made its way into two other ongoing transitional processes in the Middle Eastern region: Those of Yemen and Libya. Whereas the political complexities of those transitions are too immense to be discussed by someone who does not specialize in the politics of those two countries, constitutional drafts are emerging that make for some interesting surface comparison with the way federalism has been applied and continues to evolve in Iraq.

As far as Libya is concerned, a patchwork draft constitution was made available in late December 2014. Consisting of several sub-documents on matters like administrative division, organization of the judiciary, transitional justice, independent commissions, finance and natural resources, it can hardly be considered a complete constitutional draft. Also, on some subjects there are two competing proposals, again stressing the incomplete nature of the emerging charter. But at least some hints about the prevailing trends inside the constitution-writing committee are provided by the publication of these documents.

On administrative structure, there are two papers. Reflecting the longstanding polarization in the Arab world between competing visions for state structure, there is one paper featuring decentralization and one paper using federalism as point of departure.

On closer inspection, beyond terminological issues (“regions” or aqalim versus “governorates” or muhafazat, literally the same as in the Iraqi constitution) the differences between the two papers on state structure are less than one would think. Structurally, there is of course some difference, since the federalism position outlines a tripartite Libya consisting of Tripoli, Cyrenaica (Barqa in Arabic) and Fezzan, largely consisting of historical divisions that were also the chief organizing principle during Libya’s past existence as a federation in the 1950s and the 1960s. Conversely, the paper advocating administrative decentralization within a unified state sets out a map of 32 governorates. Most of those units are corresponding to Libya’s administrative map of 2001 which had the same number of administrative units before some mergers ensued in subsequent years. Provision is made for a cabinet decision on exact administrative boundaries, suggesting that at least some demarcation ambiguities remain. But unlike the Iraqi constitution – a Spanish-inspired hybrid of established regions (Kurdistan) and potential regions (elsewhere) which has also been suggested for Yemen – there is no suggestion that future federal regions in Libya will emerge based on popular initiatives. Whichever version is adopted, it is assumed that the administrative structure of Libya will be decided top-down, by the constitutional committee itself.

As for the division of power between the centre and the subunits, the two papers are in fact surprisingly similar. Unlike the Iraqi constitution, these proposals keep unspecified powers as the domain of the central government under the principle of residualism, with only the powers of the administrative subunits being enumerated. Most local services are in both papers described as the powers of the subunits, including in fields like agriculture, health and local police. However, unlike the situation in Iraq, some of the weightiest spheres of government including oil and energy, general security including the military and most education (not higher education) are implicitly kept for the central government to administer. In so doing, the Libyan proposals at least offer greater clarity than the Iraqi constitution in terms of demarcating responsibilities for key areas of government.

Also unlike the Iraqi constitution, the question of dividing energy revenue is tackled head on, with a specific formula distributing income with 30% to the governorates according to population, 30% to the governorates on an equal basis, 30% to the central government, and 10% to the producing subunits. The last arrangement echoes the Iraqi petrodollar arrangement for producing governorates that has yet to achieve explicit constitutional confirmation.

Whereas the two papers on state structure are positive steps as far as clarity regarding division of power is concerned, evidence of lingering ambiguity can be found in the remaining papers meant to form the whole of Libya’s constitutional draft. In these papers, tensions relating to the federalism controversy continue to be manifest. In the primary document regarding the relationship between legislature and executive power, there seems to be a working assumption that a federal system will be adopted, since a stipulation of equitable distribution between “the three geographical regions” is included as basis for the formation of the country’s new senate. No special federal formula is iterated for the first chamber or the executive. Whereas this could be normal also in a federal system, other quotas of a non-territorial nature are referred to (ethnic minorities being specifically mentioned alongside the vaguer “components” – sharait and mukawinnat).

Similarly, the paper on resource management is partially compatible with the federalism/decentralization papers as regards revenue sharing, but does not overlap entirely. For example, there is a stipulation that producing “areas” (manatiq, which could be anything but sounds like something quite local) should get 10% of the proceeds and “neighbouring areas” (similarly undefined) should have 3%. The latter stipulation would seem to be an attempt to micro-manage internal affairs of a potential autonomous federal region.

The paper on the judiciary does not seem to relate to the federalism at all. For example, it does not include much in the way of guaranteed representation in the constitutional court on a territorial basis.

And that is pretty much it. Not much to write about and many blank spaces as far as the detailed workings of federalism are concerned. However, the Libyan drafting committee is to be congratulated on its efforts to achieve greater clarity regarding the division of power between the centre and the provinces than what has emerged in Iraq. Still today, almost 10 years after the adoption of the post-Baath constitution in October 2005, Iraq is struggling to define the relationship between Baghdad, current and future federal regions, and ordinary governorates. The decision by the new Abadi government to withdraw a legal challenge to far-ranging revisions of the provincial powers law passed by the previous parliament in 2013 really does nothing to clear up the situation: Symptomatically, the move was coupled with an initiative to introduce revisions to the revised law. By comparison, these Libyan papers offer at least a modicum of clarity as regards the intended division of power between the centre and the provinces.

The bigger question, of course, is whether something along the lines of this draft stands any change of popular democratic approval in the current chaotic conditions in Libya. If the draft converges in the direction of a decentralized system that retains central control of overarching sectors, political currents of a far more radical nature, including pure separatism, are proliferating on the ground, especially in the eastern Cyrenaica region. Again compared to Iraq, Cyrenaica arguably has a more dominant role in Libya’s oil production than Kurdistan has in Iraq, making the question of what will be acceptable in terms of a federal deal potentially an even more contentious issue. So far, the Libyan constitutional committee is offering far less to the provinces than the Iraqi committee dominated by the Kurds and one of the Shiite parties (SCIRI) did in 2005. All in all, it could offer a more viable formula for a unified state, but it could also prompt so strong reactions that the constitutional process itself gets aborted and separatism prevails.

Posted in Federalism in the Middle East | Comments Off on Federalism and Decentralization in Libya’s Constitutional Proposals

Dammit, It Is NOT Unravelling: An Historian’s Rebuke to Misrepresentations of Sykes-Picot

Posted by Reidar Visser on Monday, 30 December 2013 2:25

I have long maintained that Western commentary on the Middle East is driven as much by trends in journalese as by realities on the ground and historical facts. For example, for much of the past decade we have been told that the country of Iraq is about to “implode”, given that it was “cobbled together” after the First World War from three “disparate” provinces whose centrifugal forces have continued to “fuel” and “stoke” conflict between “embattled” Iraqi “factions” in the period after 2003, making it quite impossible for them to justly “divvy up” the country’s revenue derived from the “oil-rich Shiite south” and the “Kurdish north”. All of this is misleading, and if these clichés hadn’t been employed by Western journos and pundits in the first place it would perhaps have been easier to understand the survival of Iraq as a nation despite pressures from the outside that can hardly be described as other than extreme.

With the recent shift of attention to Syria, a new artificial focus of discussion has emerged among Western pundits, namely, whether the Sykes-Picot agreement between the British and the French during the First World War is in the process of “unravelling”. Most commentators seem to think it is, with a particular emphasis on the supposed role of Sykes-Picot in determining the modern boundary between Iraq and Syria. As a consequence of this perspective, the ragtag of bandits and terrorists that is also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) end up being portrayed, explicitly or implicitly, as the implementers of some kind of deep-rooted popular urge for pan-Arab and pan-Islamic unity that supposedly pulls the Syrian and Iraqi peoples towards each other.

Here is why the current focus on Sykes Picot is misguided.

1. The Sykes-Picot Agreement Is Not What Many People Think It Is. When it was concluded in 1916, the main idea behind the agreement was to secure annexation of certain coastal areas that were deemed to be of particular interest to the allies, especially Basra for the British and the coastland between Lebanon and Cilicia for the French (the Russians were accorded control of the Straits for similar reasons). The truly important aspect of the Sykes-Picot map were therefore the areas of exclusive control along the coasts – British in Acre/Haifa and Basra (naval interest playing a key role); French in Lebanon and north to Alexandretta in Turkey (the location of Christian minorities was accorded much importance). By way of contrast, the details of demarcation in the interior – where a more informal form of British and French influence was envisaged – was accorded less importance at the time. Furthermore, scholars such as Eliezer Tauber and Nelida Fuccaro have convincingly demonstrated that local politics, not the rough lines of Sykes Picot, governed the final details regarding the disposal of border areas between Syria and Iraq like Abu Kamal and Jabal Sinjar during the 1920s. Conversely, local resistance against Sykes Picot at the time was mainly framed as a protest against the way in which the agreement  divided what was perceived as  “historical Syria” by isolating the coastal fringe including Lebanon and the Alawite lands from Damascus. The desire for union between Iraq and Syria, by way of contrast, was not such a central theme. By December 1918, the Covenant society loyal to the Hashemite princes, probably the most pan-Arab force of the day, had itself fragmented into Syrian and Iraqi branches, quite without the help of foreign officers. To the extent that cross-border irredentism continued to survive in the 1920s and the 1930s, it mostly had the character of local regionalisms rather than popular movements for Syrian-Iraqi unity. In particular, the territory along the Euphrates from Ana in Iraq north to Raqqa in Syria remained the subject of some turbulence, with Raqqa often enumerated among Iraqi nationalists as a maximum objective of western expansion. Similarly, Hanna Batatu identified a degree of interwar regionalism linking Mosul in Iraq and Aleppo in Syria as a result of the way new borders cut across that old trade region. At no point, though, did any viable separatist or irredentist party emerge.

2. The Central Features of the Post-1918 Map of the Middle East Had Local Antecedents. Sometimes Sykes-Picot is being construed as a complete armchair project by willful European strategists. What is often not realized is the extent to which the agreement merely put on the map patterns of special administrative arrangements that had been in the making under the Ottomans for decades, if not longer. Thus, special Ottoman arrangements for Palestine and Lebanon date back to the nineteenth century: the special administrative district of Lebanon dating to 1861 and the special district of Jerusalem established in the 1870s. As for Iraq, it had been separated entirely from Syria in administrative terms almost since the beginning of Islam – and had for long periods been ruled from Baghdad as a single charge. Again, the only real exception pertains to the Raqqa-Ana borderlands which in brief intervals had gravitated towards Baghdad rather than Damascus. All the talk that these boundaries are a mere hundred years old and that everything was designed by a couple of European colonial strategists is utter unscientific nonsense that collapses immediately upon confrontation with contemporary primary documents, where terms like “Syria” and “Iraq” were in widespread use long before Sykes and Picot even knew where these areas were located.

3. The Bits of Sykes-Picot That Were Actually Implemented Are Very Few. It is often forgotten that most of the Sykes-Picot agreement was never implemented. Stipulated French control in Mosul was soon reversed. Alexandretta (Hatay)reverted to Turkey whereas the Alawite lands of Syria fell to Damascus during the decades of the French mandate before World War II. Sykes-Picot, by way of contrast, had prescribed territorial unity between what was seen as the “minority lands” of Lebanon, the Alawite areas of Syria and the mixed areas of southeastern parts of Turkey. What remains is the rough line of division between Syria and Iraq, but again that broadly reflected indigenous patterns of administrative subdivision and was not really implemented to the letter in any case.

4. Things Aren’t Unravelling Completely Anyway. OK, so we have hordes of ultra-radical Islamists occupying points on either side of the Syrian-Iraqi border. They talk pan-Islamic and sometimes act pan-Islamic. Isn’t that decisive proof that the borders of the past, whatever their exact historical origins, are falling apart? Far from it. They are receiving more attention today because everyone’s eyes are on Syria, but back in 2005 pan-Islamic movements also operated in this area, including an Islamic emirate in al-Qaim near the Syrian-Iraqi border. In the face of that challenge, the Sunni population of western Iraq rose in protest through the sahwa movements. Today, there is once more a tug-of-war between pan-Islamism and Iraqi nationalism, but by no means has the local population universally sided with the Islamist rebels. Despite continuing squabbles among Iraqi leaders, a considerable segment of local Anbar politicians have rushed to support the Iraqi army in its efforts against pan-Islamist elements, showing that the people of western Iraq are once more sceptical about getting too intimately connected with political movements aiming at union with Syria. As for the continuing confrontations between Iraqi PM Maliki and individual Sunni leaders in Anbar, there are two ways of looking at them: True, Maliki’s rather overt use of the Iraqi judiciary to selectively target political enemies comes across as tendentious and often reckless; yet at the same time the apparently bottomless supply of Sunni tribal leaders prepared to continue to do business with him testifies to a degree of popular aversion to the alternative of all-out revolution. Finally,  note also that even ISIS in all their pan-Islamism couldn’t resist the differentiation between Syria and Iraq when they named their organization! The territorial spread of ISIS itself in Iraq and Syria with a core area along the upper Euphrates around Raqqa could even indicate that it resonates most strongly with a more limited historical legacy of regionalism in what was historically the Jazira borderland between Syria and Iraq (rather than with grand schemes for Fertile Crescent union) – and that this regionalism, in itself, ultimately remains subordinated to century-long patterns of administrative differentiation between Syria and Iraq that Sykes-Picot merely served to confirm.

Nothing in this should of course be seen to deny the validity of stories emphasizing the bitter fate of individual families living in borderlands affected by Sykes-Picot. But borderlands are always different, and European towns and farms with similarly heartbreaking stories about borders tearing families apart are legion. That does not mean Europeans need to urgently revisit past territorial agreements arrived at in places like Versailles (1919) or even Vienna (1815).

In sum, the current fixation with Sykes-Picot is just another case of Westerners being misrepresented as the omnipotent force in the Middle East. Today, the thing that appears to be in the greatest danger of unravelling is our fragile historical knowledge of the Middle East.

Posted in Federalism in the Middle East, Iraq - regionalism - general | 4 Comments »

With Inspiration from Iraq, Syrian Kurds Publish a Draft Constitution

Posted by Reidar Visser on Thursday, 26 December 2013 0:03

After having mulled the question of a constitutional draft since at least June 2013, leading Syrian Kurdish politicians have recently published their draft constitution for areas they would like to see unified as a Kurdish region in a future Syrian federation.

In analyzing the Syrian Kurdish draft constitution, two logical points of comparison stand out: The draft constitution of the Iraqi Kurdistan region dating back to 2009, as well as the Iraqi constitution of 2005 which was drafted with heavy Kurdish influences. Generally speaking the Syrian Kurdish documents seems closely modelled on the Iraqi Kurdistan precedent, though with some important exceptions. Comparisons with the Iraqi constitution of 2005 are less rewarding simply because the Syrian Kurds have largely refrained from demarcating the exact borderline between federal and regional power in their draft constitution.

The Syrian Kurdish draft constitution begins with a section on fundamental concepts. Among other things, the northern Syrian city of Qamishli (Qamishlo in Kurdish) is designated as the capital of the proposed region. The Persian new year (Nowroz) will be the national holiday, and there will be a flag for the region, although its design is not defined by the draft paper. Kurdish and Arabic will be the official languages of the proposed region. The draft specifically states that the Kurdish people have chosen union with the rest of Syria in a federation and envisages the event of the termination of the relationship (i.e. secession) in the event that the federal authorities act unconstitutionally or in a racist manner.

The second section of the draft constitution, exactly like the Iraqi Kurdish one, is a long list of rights. In many ways the document goes further than many Western constitutions in terms of explicitly guaranteeing civil liberties, the rule of law, the impermissibility of all forms of torture or extra-judicial punishment etc.

Whereas much of the second section could be seen as boilerplate, the hard aspects of constitution writing are contained in section 3 on the structure of government. Unsurprisingly, a republican model of government has been chosen. Parliament will consist of one representative for every 35,000 inhabitants, and a degree of proportional representation of ethno-religious minorities (mukawanat) seems implied. Parliamentary cycles will be of four years’duration.

The envisaged Syrian Kurdistan parliament will legislate in areas of government that are not the exclusive prerogative of the central government; these areas are however not enumerated. It is still possible, though, to catch a glimpse of the intensions of the Kurdish constitution framers in this respect insofar as certain areas of government are accorded special mention. Firstly, it is stipulated that parliament will legislate taxes and adopt an annual budget, meaning considerable financial autonomy is envisaged. Secondly, parliament will appoint heads of “regional guards”, the police and security forces. The nomenclature is identical to Iraqi Kurdistan, which governs its security affairs entirely without any interference from Baghdad.

As regards the proposed executive, the vision of presidential power is particularly interesting. The Syrian Kurdish constitution calls for a strong, popularly elected president that will have significant roles with respect to government formation, relations with federal authorities, amnesty, and questions regarding state of emergency. The Syrian Kurdish president will however not be quite as strong as his Iraqi Kurdish counterpart. Whereas the Iraqi Kurdistan president is commander in chief of the Kurdish armed forces, the Syrian Kurdistan one will be so for ceremonial purposes only. Similarly, whereas the Iraqi Kurdistani president has the right to initiate legislation, no such role is foreshadowed for the Syrian Kurdistan president under the draft constitution. Presidential terms are limited to two times four years, similar to all other leading positions in the proposed arrangements.

Regarding the powers of the cabinet, a particularly interesting point relates to oil and gas. It is stipulated that the cabinet will cooperate with the central government in order to find the best way of exploiting oil and gas resources, with Syrian Kurdish parliamentary approval needed for anything relating to resources within the Kurdish region. Compared with the situation on the ground in Iraq – where Kurdish authorities have recently concluded entire pipeline deals with Turkey without much discussion with Baghdad – this does come across as a somewhat softer position, allowing a greater role for Damascus in Syrian Kurdish energy discussion than what the KRG is prepared to accord Baghdad.

Finally, the chapter on state structure envisages the creation of a fully-fledged judiciary, with its own prosecutor-general, court of cassation and even a constitutional court. Again, this resembles Iraqi Kurdistan realities to some extent and arguably goes even further in terms of carving out regional autonomy.

A separate chapter deals with security. Some of it consists of reiteration of points already mentioned under the powers of the executive and the legislature. Other articles add interesting pieces of information. For example, it is stipulated that the minister of the interior should be a civilian. Also, the point is made that the guards of the region, although locally controlled, should be financed by the central government for the role they ostensibly play in external defence. This, in turn, relates to the Iraqi precedent, where the Kurds demand that Baghdad pay for their peshmerga forces.

The big difference with respect to the Iraqi precedent concerns constitution making at the federal level. Already in the 1990s, Iraqi Kurds began writing constitutional draft for a future Iraqi federation of Arabs and Kurds. That document, in turn, made it easier to see what the Kurds envisaged in terms of distribution of power between the centre and the region in various spheres of government. Such a proposal at the federal level is still lacking with respect to the Syrian Kurds. The only mention of an exclusive power of the federal government is an en passant reference to foreign policy. This makes it more difficult to discern the maximum demands of the Syrian Kurds in their new draft constitution – perhaps a reflection of a situation that is even more chaotic than post-Saddam Iraq, as regards the external environment and intra-Kurdish divisions alike.

Posted in Federalism in the Middle East, Iraq - regionalism - general | 6 Comments »

Spanish and Iraqi Influences in the UN Proposal for a Federal Yemen

Posted by Reidar Visser on Tuesday, 24 December 2013 23:43

It was apparently shot down by major Yemeni parties shortly after its release, but the new official UN policy document on Yemen and the problem of southern separatism is worth a closer look for what it says about the spread of federalism in the Middle East more generally, and the enduring influences of Iraq’s ambivalent federalism experience in particular.

Two key questions will recur in any proposal of constitutional federal design. Firstly, there is the issue of distribution of power between the centre and the regions. Secondly, there is the question of demarcation of regions in the new federal state. The UN proposal for Yemen, authored by the UNSG special representative Jamal Benomar, is particularly interesting for the details it provides on the UN suggestion for the second question, i.e. what will be the constituent elements of a new federal Yemeni state. Whereas the question of what responsibilities will be vested in different levels of government is largely left unresolved (and considered as being within the domain of new constitution writing), the UN paper does provide a high level of detail on what sort of political process could determine the fundamental administrative structure of a new Yemen.

The proposed mechanisms for sorting out Yemen’s future administrative structure are set out in section 3 of the UN  paper.

In the first instance, the UN envisages the formation of a national committee that will deliberate the question of what will form the ideal federal regions in Yemen, based on a series of key indicators ranging from historical factors to infrastructural considerations. The committee will specifically consider previous proposals ranging from a federal state of two constituent elements (north and south) to multi-regional proposals (typically ranging from 5 to 7 federal regions). Existing governorates (muhafaza, same term as in Iraq) will become “provinces” (wilaya) in the event of joining a new region (iqlim, also same terminology as Iraq).

The more problematic aspects of the paper relate to the very realistic prospects that, a) the committee fails to agree internally, and b) the population of the affected areas don’t agree with the proposals of the national committee.

Firstly, absent intra-committee consensus, provisions are made for a ¾ secret majority vote inside the committee itself. Failing that, the head of the committee is given special powers to  seek consensus, albeit the mechanisms for doing so remain largely unclear. The question of what will happen if there is not even an absolute majority for anything on the committee is left completely untouched.

At any rate, the rest of the document is predicated on a scenario in which a definitive proposal of federalization into a finite number of regions does indeed emerge from the committee. It then goes on to consider the modalities for popular approval. Or, rather one should say “local politician approval”, because everything will apparently be settled by votes in the councils of the existing governorates rather than by popular referenda. In the first instance, a two-thirds majority of the provincial council members in a governorate affected by a proposed new region can reject incorporation in that region. The Yes governorates, in turn,  may elect to form a region of their own without the No governorates if they can muster the required majorities for the modified regional vision. The No governorates are also accorded a second chance to join the proposed region through a second vote within 3 months; however it they then fail to join, they will remain governed by the central government for at least five years. (Apparently, they will not enjoy the option of transforming themselves to a single-governorate federal region.) Later, after five years, they can form a region together with other such non-federated governorates based on a 60% majority of their councils or they can join an existing region that may be willing to let them enter. Finally, the UN document envisages the possibility of super-region formation on the basis of neighbouring, newly constituted federal regions, requiring a ¾ majority approval in the provincial units (wilayas) of the new regions.

Does this sound familiar? In many ways the proposed process borrows from the experiences of federalization in Spain in the late 1970s after the transition from decades of authoritarian rule under General Franco, which also played out as a dialectic between popular initiatives and elite demarcation of the new federalism map. Importantly, in the way the Yemen proposal is heavily biased towards the signals from the national committee it largely resonates with what actually happened in Spain. Whereas the new Spanish constitution outlined an interesting model of ultra-democratic bottom–up federalization, elite politicians soon got worried about the forces let loose by this process and largely recouped leadership of the process, eventually settling the federal map of Spain largely through committee fiat. Crucially, in the UN paper on Yemen, whereas in theory everything is approved at the level of existing governorates, in practice the initiative rests firmly with the national committee. If they fail to join a region defined by elite politicians, governorates will be saddled with central government administration for five years, almost as if it is meant to constitute punishment for failure to adhere to the new federalism imposed from above.

It can be useful also to contrast the proposed mechanisms with the way federalism has been tentatively implemented in Iraq after 2005. Generally speaking, it seems the UN is eager to avoid some of the weaknesses that emerged from the very permissive model for federalization that was eventually adopted in Iraq through the law on forming federal regions in October 2006. In the case of Iraq, there is the theoretical possibility of almost endless and continuous region formation, something that can easily prompt political instability and may lead to situations in which the threat of region formation can be used for all sorts of blackmail purposes even by politicians who are entirely uninterested in the idea of federalism as such. This has posed significant challenges for the Iraqi central government, whose failure to allow several federalism initiatives in provinces like Basra, Salahaddin and Wasit can hardly be described as anything other than unconstitutional. Many will argue, though, that the government’s actions are justifiable for the sake of the stability of the country, and that it is really the constitution and the federalism law of 2006 that go too far and that need reform.

Conversely, in Yemen, such scenarios of bottom–up federalization will now be more unlikely. The more pressing question is how this latest UN paper will fit in with existing visions of federalism (and even independence) among the key political players, and with the process of national reconciliation more broadly. In the first place, it is unclear what role this kind of paper will really play given that it is predicated on a process of constitution writing which will likely in itself be an autonomous affair, to some extent unbound by past agreements. Second, there is the question of whether the vision of agreement on federal units among national political elites is a realistic prospect. At the present time, it is thought that the vision of a large number of federal units is partly a northern strategy to dilute the southern vision of a two-state entity that would eventually permit southern secession. For its part, the vision of southern unity seems to mask the existence of multiple, partly incompatible, projects of southern autonomy and even independence. In particular, the extent to which historical centres like Aden and the Hawramawt can realistically be considered a unified force seems open to question. Unlike the situation in Iraq in 2005, where Kurdistan was the only realistic candidate for immediate federal status, the Yemen situation is muddled by the existing of multiple aspirations to autonomy that are sometimes mutually incompatible.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this paper is the light it casts on the UN role in navigating Yemen’s complex political landscape. Lip service is being paid to a democratic process of federalization, yet the paper gives a national committee of political elites the greatest say in the matter, with governorate politicians (rather than the inhabitants of the governorates) playing  second fiddle. Realistically speaking, a paper like this can probably be nothing more than a means to help initiate a more fundamental process of constitution writing, during which unresolved issues will inevitably come up again. Yemen looks set to have a cumbersome federalization process – more like Libya than Iraq – but then again the Iraqi precedent makes it abundantly clear that decisions on momentous things like federalism are probably best made without deadlines and time pressures being imposed with force from the outside.

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Iraq and Libya: Parallels and Non-Parallels

Posted by Reidar Visser on Wednesday, 6 April 2011 23:06

Subsequent to the start of the Iraq War om 2003, Western analysts spent a prodigious amount of time and energy debating an “alternative” Iraq policy that never had any chance of succeeding in the real world and which therefore served as a major distraction in the overall discussion of policy options: A three-way soft partition of the country. Today, with the sudden upsurge of Western interest in Libya – and with a general explosion of simplistic punditry focusing  on the ethno-sectarian geography of the broader Middle East – it is only a question of time before think tankers in the West will discover certain tripartite patterns in Libyan history, too, and use them as a basis for discussions of possible ways forward. However, even a cursory and preliminary reading of Libya’s history should make it possible to preempt at least some of the scenarios that seem destined to appear in future discussions.

Regular readers of this column will be familiar with the main elements in an historian’s refutation of the soft-partition option for Iraq. Briefly, the soft partition scheme as it emerged in the post-2003 period ignored at least three important historical facts: 1. The three-way division of Iraq in late Ottoman times did not follow ethno-sectarian lines (Baghdad had most Shiites and Mosul was mixed) and was never complete (Baghdad served as a proto-capital for all three provinces in certain spheres of administration including military and judicial affairs); 2. The three-way partition had existed for some thirty years only (circa 1880-1914) before which there were long periods of administrative unity in a single province (Baghdad); 3. Far from being an “artificial” term, the concept of “Iraq” was in fact frequently employed by the local population, Ottoman administrators and foreigners alike in the nineteenth century. In sum, then, the post-2003 soft-partition scheme for Iraq had no historical basis, meaning that on top of the numerous ethical and practical considerations involved in its implementation, it seemed unlikely to find any popular resonance even if an attempt had been made to push it through.

When it comes to Libya, unlike Iraq, the country actually does have a history of twentieth-century federalism as well as complete territorial fragmentation. During the first years after independence, from 1951 to 1963, Libya had a federal state structure which among other things featured extensive taxation powers for the three federal regions (Benghazi in the east, Tripoli in the centre-north and Fezzan in the south). That tripartite federal structure, in turn, was based on complete administrative separation in the 1940s, when developments in the Second World War and the ouster of the Italians in 1942 had led to the creation of three separate zones of occupation with their own administrations. Although the ethno-sectarian geography of these lands did not correlate perfectly with the tripartite administrative configuration, Benghazi stood somewhat out thanks to a strongly influential puritan Sufi movement (the Sanusiyya), whereas non-Arab (particularly Berber) influences were said to be somewhat stronger in the west and the south. In contrast to the situation in Libya, Iraq remained a centralised state from the formal inception of the monarchy in 1921 until the beginnings of experiments with Kurdish autonomy in the 1970s.

On the other hand, though, if we go further back in history, the parallels between Iraq and Libya are quite striking. Just like the territory of modern-day Iraq was administratively unified for a great deal in the late 1700s and the early 1800s, a political entity almost perfectly coterminous with the modern state of Libya existed in the same period: The Barbary state of Tripoli. Contemporary accounts of North Africa in the early nineteenth century almost invariably focus on four dominant political entities in the region: Morocco, Alger, Tunis and Tripoli. Headed by the Albanian Karamanlis – a group of military officers that broke with the Ottomans and as such another parallel to Iraq where the Georgian mamelukes reigned – the Tripoli state engaged in lucrative piracy activities in the Mediterranean that enabled it to subjugate, albeit tenuously, the territory to the south and east of Tripoli (incidentally, those piracies also brought them into conflict with the United States). After the Ottoman reconquista in 1835 (the timing being another Iraq parallel) that same geographical area remained mostly unified as a single vilayet until the 1880s. At that point, Cyrenaica was definitively separated as a distinctive unit. By way of contrast, Iraq oscillated between unified rule and various subdivision formulas throughout the nineteenth century.

Unlike Iraq, there is less continuity as far as nomenclature is concerned in the case of Libya. Rather than using the name “Libya”, many contemporary sources simply referred to these lands as Trablus al-Gharb or “Tripoli of the West”, i.e. to distinguish it from the “eastern”/Syrian Tripoli in what is Lebanon today. For example, despite the formal differentiation in the late Ottoman period between the vilayet of Tripoli and the special administrative district of Benghazi, the Ottoman historian Mahmud Naci referred to Benghazi as “part of Tripoli” in his discussion of the Sanusiyya. Similarly, an early Libyan historian, Ahmad Mahmud, referred to the “Cyrenaican desert of Tripoli” as the birthplace of Umar al-Mukhtar (who would go on to become a famous Libyan nationalist) and to Fezzan as “an oasis that belongs to Tripoli”. Conversely, in the case of Iraq, the term “Iraq” appears far more frequently in sources from the nineteenth century and was often used interchangeably with the greater Baghdad vilayet. In the Libyan case, then, it seems clear that the Italian occupation from 1912 onwards was instrumental in introducing a new term for referring to the country, even though also the Italian administration for some years featured administrative differentiation between Tripoli and Cyrenaica. Ultimately, the Italians opted to organise the entire country in four perfetturas dependent upon Tripoli, meaning that centripetal forces once more came to the fore.

Exactly as in the case of Iraq, Libyan historiography does include a trend that has been dismissive about the whole idea of continuity from the old mameluke days to the era of the modern state. But whereas constructivist narratives of Iraqi history mostly consist of the unempirical musings of armchair commentators who have never held an actual Ottoman document in their hands, when it comes to Libya there are a number of eloquent, well-researched and indigenous accounts of the creation of the modern state that in various ways question the paradigm of Tripoli as the natural focus of a centralised state incorporating Fezzan and Cyrenaica. By way of example, Ali Abdullatif Ahmida has written a largely constructivist version of the emergence of the modern Libyan state in which he goes far in embracing an “artificiality” paradigm. In particular, in order to counterbalance Tripoli-centric narratives, Ahmida accords prominence to a small political entity in the far south of the country around Fezzan: The state of Awlad Muhammad which existed between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries. A similar revisionist take can be seen in the work of Muhammad Mustafa Bazamah, which focuses on Cyrenaica or Barqa as it is usually called in Arabic.

Ahmida’s and Bazamah’s contributions come across as fresh challenges against teleological versions of Libya’s modern history. Nonetheless, they can perhaps themselves be challenged for magnifying the importance of the south and the east, which after all were dwarfed by Tripoli in terms of population numbers: Around the time of formal unification, Tripolitania had around 700,000 inhabitants; Cyrenaica, 300,000; Fezzan, 60,000. In accounts from the early 1950s it is actually French protestations against the amalgamation of the three occupation zones into a single state that loom largest in the sources. “Libya is an artificial and sterile country”, declared pro-imperial forces in Paris in December 1949, exactly at the juncture when the idea of formal Libyan unification was beginning to gain traction in international circles.

This point in turn relates to what is perhaps the greatest contrast between Iraq and Libya as far as territorial stability is concerned: Whereas both Tripoli and Baghdad presented a certain degree of continuity as proto-capitals for greater Libyan and Iraqi regions between the 1700s and the 1900s, Libya experienced a unique degree of both informal and formal territorial fragmentation during the first half of the twentieth century – above all as the result of different legacies of interaction with foreign, imperial powers in different regions of the country. Firstly, Sanusi resistance against the Italians provided for anti-colonial sentiment that translated into regional patterns: Cyrenaica, anti-Italian; Tripolitania, less so. Later, as the result of developments in the Second World War, formal fragmentation ensued in the shape of three different zones of occupation: Fezzan (French), Tripolitania (British), and Cyrenaica (separated from Tripoli and reconstituted as a single entity under the British, with special guarantees for future independence).

For a few years after 1945 – an interlude caused first and foremost by procrastination in the international community regarding the disposal of the Italian colonies generally – it seemed likely that Fezzan would become attached to other French colonial possessions in North Africa; that Cyrenaica might come under some kind of British tutelage; and that Tripolitania might possibly even revert to Italian overlordship. Despite growing agitation in favour of unity among the Libyans themselves, it was probably only a certain anti-imperialist surge in the newly founded United Nations as well as a general preference in London for more informal and economic forms of empire that eventually consecrated the formula that would prevail: The unification of all three zones of occupation in the single kingdom of Libya.

During this process, what happened to the Sanusiyya-dominated Cyrenaica presents certain interesting parallels – and non-parallels as well – to the fate of Kurdish independence dreams after the First World War, which were basically crushed between the treaties of Sevres in 1920 and Lausanne in 1923. In the 1940s, despite some common cooperation against the Italians in the 1920s, there was much to suggest that a degree of apartness had developed between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania as the result of different trajectories during the years of Italian rule, and with the Cyrenaicans in particular increasingly warming up to the prospect of having some kind of separate political entity with a privileged connection to the British Empire. For example, a representation by Umar Mansur in 1945 called for Cyrenaica to become “an independent country” under Sayyid Idris, the Sanusi leader. Unlike the Kurds in Iraq, however – and despite the preferences of the numerically dominant Tripolitanians for some kind of more tightly integrated state – the Cyrenaicans managed to provide national leadership (King Idris) once the idea of a unified Libya gained international support. They went on to dominate the federation that was subsequently formed and provided their own input to the terms of that federation, even though there were also external influences at work including UN “experts” (in a parallel to post-2003 Iraq, one of them was a Dutchman, Adrian Pelt). Of course, in the case of Iraq after the First World War, the monarch – Faisal I – was imported from Hijaz and a centralist formula of government adopted.

In Libya, there generally seem to have been more cross-cutting cleavages than in Iraq. Maybe some Cyrenaicans appeared parochial at times, but after all much of their Sanusi heritage was pan-Islamist rather than regionalist, stretching into Sudan and parts of the Sahara. Historically and geographically, Cyrenaica was actually closest to the heart of the Arab world and centres like Cairo, with some authorities even claiming that the grand division line between the eastern and western parts of the Arab world – Machrek and Maghreb – cut Libya in two, with Cyrenaica belonging to the Machrek and Tripoli to the Maghreb. Also , it seems that Cairo-educated young men of Cyrenaica played a key role in converting Sayyid Idris from a narrow Cyrenaica-oriented approach to a broader one focused on all of Libya, and may have played a role when the king first began considering a move from a federal to a unitary formula of government in the mid-1950s (this was eventually achieved in 1963, subsequent to the discovery of oil in 1959). These are all factors that would seem to put the Cyrenaicans in a different position in Libya than what the Kurds experienced in Iraq, the superficial similarities of the size of the communities and the degree of territorial concentration notwithstanding.

On the balance, then, one senses that despite the upheavals of the twentieth century – and the efforts of erudite and articulate scholars in the constructivist tradition – the vision of a centralised state with Tripoli as its capital eventually prevailed in twentieth-century Libya, much like what happened to Baghdad in Iraq. Today, the regionally entrenched opposition in Benghazi appears to be going out of its way to emphasise its adherence to the idea of Tripoli as the undisputed capital of Libya, although it should perhaps be remembered that the monarchy flag used by these opponents of Gadhafi is also originally a federalism flag. But, as the Second World War showed, too much external intervention can easily disturb local equilibriums and propel artificial schemes to the forefront. Left to its own, Libya might well eventually gravitate towards Tripoli in one way or another, but with foreign intervention, the question is a lot more open. It should be remembered that the UN Security Council adopted for Libya provides international powers with a much bigger toolbox than what Western powers had in Iraq in the 1990s, when the no-fly-zone had no legal basis (except a fictional exegesis of UNSC 688) and when suggestions of a no-drive-zone was never on the table in a serious way (even though the Clinton administration seemed to be trying to create one in 1996). Accordingly, as happened during the Second World War, Libya may in the future once more come to experience formal territorial fragmentation and the emergence of enclaves of the kind one would otherwise only expect in settings where there are more enduring legacies of truly indigenous separatist schemes, like Yemen.

Posted in Federalism in the Middle East, Iraq - regionalism - general, Iraqi nationalism, Sectarian master narrative | 31 Comments »