April 26 marks 50 years since King Idris as-Senussi of Libya declared the end of federalism. Libya’s prime minister during the time, Mohieddin Fikini, introduced a constitutional amendment passed by the country’s three states (Cyrenaica, and Fezzan, and Tripolitania) to unify the country which would now be made up of ten governorates. (Tripolitania was divided into five governorates, Cyrenaica into three governorates and Fezzan into two.)
When Libya gained independence in 1951 as a federal monarchy, it was led by King Idris as head of state, with succession designated to his heirs. Local autonomy was exercised through provincial governments and legislatures, as granted and protected by the constitution. Benghazi and Tripoli alternately served as the national capital for the country.
History highlights some of the grave challenges Libya’s founding fathers had to overcome in the process of establishing the country. Nationalist leaders in Tripolitania pushed for a republic regime, but had to pull back due to fears from regional leaders in Cyrenaica and Fezzan that heavily-populated Tripolitania would dominate them. After years of negotiations and consultations, (facilitated and overseen by the United Nations and the post-World War II colonial powers), a consensus was reached to adopt a federal monarchy.
The debate over federalism has been revived once again following the February 17 revolution that led to the toppling of Qaddafi and his regime. It is becoming one the main topics that will affect the shape of the political future of the country. This debate rose to the forefront of Libyan politics after the Conference for the People of Cyrenaica, on March 6, 2012, after which an announcement was made declaring autonomy for Cyrenaica and the revival of federalism and the constitution of 1951.
Interestingly, the current debate over federalism in Libya also revolves around the right representation of geographical affiliations and identities in Parliament and a call against continuous marginalisation. Nonetheless, opponents to federalism base their argument on the threat to national unity and fear of partition, as well as unfair representation — once again — for the people of Tripolitania. However, the experience of independence could help understand the current developments, forces behind them, and their significance to the political future of post-Qaddafi Libya.
As stipulated in Chapter 7 of the 1951 constitution, the issue of regional and population representation was overcome by adopting a bicameral parliament, which was divided into a Senate and a House of Representatives. Eight senators represent each of the three provinces, while the representatives’ allotments are assigned to each province at a ratio of one to every 20,000 residents, with no province to receive fewer than five representatives.
On March 15, 2012, the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) amended the constitution-making process to allow for greater regional representation. The amendment came after a bold bid by tribal and political leaders to declare autonomy in the oil-rich Cyrenaica, which raised fears of partition. The amendment states that 60 experts (modelled on the 1951 constitution drafting committee) would draft the new constitution.
This will not be the only time Libya’s new leaders would need to look back at the history of their founding fathers, especially as they negotiate for mechanisms by which wealth and power will be shared in the new Libya in order to achieve stability. The issue of regional representation (between the three old provinces) and equal representation of the population will be one of the main sticking points as Libya’s Constituent Assembly seeks to draft the country’s new constitution. Thus, for now, the bicameral parliament arrangement adopted in the 1951 constitution seems to be the best option to overcome this issue.
When tensions were rising high in Cyrenaica over the influence the different regions will have in the new Libya, and with fears of partition becoming real, Libya’s new leaders looked back at its contemporary history for ways to defuse these tensions and they succeeded. However, Libyans should not allow history to pull us back more than 60 years in time; we should use history as a tool to safeguard unity and achieve progress by considering the constitutional legacy of 1951 in terms of rights-based principles for the different regions and the consensus that led to Libya’s independence in 1951 and subsequent unification.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.