Iraq and Libya (II)

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 Arab world 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.

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