x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Libya's future depends on unity above all

Libya's problem runs deeper than how to write a constitution. The first question all Libyans must answer is: where is my allegiance?

Tribal leaders, militia chieftains and local politicians announced unilaterally on Tuesday that the Benghazi region, the core of Libya's oil industry and the fuel pump of the national economy, will become a semiautonomous region.

This was unpleasant if not unexpected news to the Tripoli-based National Transitional Council and interim Libyan government, which are struggling to fairly allocate National Assembly seats. That process has alienated many, especially leaders in the eastern region that includes the former rebel capital of Benghazi.

What remains to be seen is if this declaration is a bargaining ploy, a legitimate proposal for a federalist state or an existential crisis opening the way to Balkanisation, with the threat of a renewed civil war along tribal or geographic lines.

Libya, like many states in Africa and the Middle East, has a map based more on old European colonial politics and treaties than on realities of terrain or geography. (The word "Balkanisation" refers to the founding of multiple states and statelets as empires crumbled before the First World War.)

For many Libyans, tribal and regional allegiances run at least as deep as the national identity. In the east, long under Muammar Qaddafi's heel, there are understandable aspirations of self-determination and a fair allocation of natural resources, which after all are concentrated in that area of the country.

The understanding that Libya is split into (at least) three distinct regions has underpinned its politics since independence in 1951.

In many countries, federalism allows a healthy combination of local autonomy and global presence. Done right, a federal state can be much more than the sum of its parts.

But Libyans are trying to forge a new state in a country awash with old resentments and the weapons of the recent conflict. In those conditions, forging a federation and finding federal leaders who have the welfare of the whole country at heart is a daunting challenge, made even greater when outside powers meddle. Iraqis have already learnt this lesson.

Libya's problem runs deeper than how to write a constitution. The first question all Libyans must answer is: where is my allegiance? The second is: can this group to which I adhere find peace, justice and prosperity by working with other groups in the framework of a Libyan state? Further down the list comes the question of the mechanism of that state.

In the fevered climate of today's Libya, calm deliberation is in poor supply, and a new conflict may be the cost of failure. This is a time for reason and consultation, not unilateral bluster.