Published on 6 Jul 2012

Federalism in Libya

Last night I had dinner in Benghazi with a Libyan friend who’s running in Saturday’s election. I found it hard to understand how he was persuading people to vote for him – he’s standing as an individual, has done no traditional campaigning, and has been living in London for nearly 30 years. His wife, who’s back in the UK, had cast her ballot for him in Wembley, under the arrangements for Libyan expatriates. “That’s one vote, anyway,” he said.

The price of posters, he said, was prohibitive so he could afford only three, and much to his annoyance one had been defaced. Ah well. At least it is equal opportunities defacement – initially it seemed that only women’s faces were being scratched out, but now it’s clear that any candidate’s poster might be torn down or scribbled on. He was planning a somewhat ostentatious attendance at Friday prayers, to see and be seen. “Normally I only make it for the last five minutes,” he confided.

Libya elections
Libya elections

He gave me a lift back to my hotel, and I found a rough banner in the back of the car. “That belongs to my brother,” said his friend who was driving. “It’s an anti-election poster. He’s a federalist.”

That’s how it is in eastern Libya – those who want to disrupt the election and those who are participating seem to understand each other. The federalists think that the east should have autonomy from Tripoli.

The rest say it should remain united with the west but have more power.

Most easterners I’ve met say the distribution of parliamentary seats is unfair – they should have more than the 60 they have been allocated, because the east was neglected under Gaddafi, and with government centralised in Tripoli, history is repeating itself.

Interestingly, some westerners also want the east to have more power, because the region is solidly anti-Gaddafi, whereas in the west there’s still some residual support for the late Brother Leader.

It explains why no-one has confronted the groups of young men who have been burning election centres and tearing down posters. The majority don’t agree with their method, but many are sympathetic to their message. Including, maybe, my friend.

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