As the Libyan people see renewed prospects for peace, subnational governance may represent an integral part of a resolution to protracted instability. After a year and a half of intense fighting, peace talks between Libya’s main warring factions culminated in the signing of a permanent ceasefire on Oct. 23. Only days later, on Oct. 26, the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum launched online and then in-person intra-Libyan political talks to convene a cross-section of Libya’s population for an inclusive discussion of the country’s future. Acting United Nations envoy Stephanie Williams, in her opening remarks, emphasized the importance of formulating a “constitutional and legal basis” for Libya, including for parliamentary and presidential elections.

This task has become ever more urgent, as on Nov. 15, the Dialogue Forum adopted a roadmap entitled “For the Preparatory Phase of a Comprehensive Solution” intended for the facilitation of elections to be held in December 2021. The roadmap also entailed an agreement that constitutional arrangements as a legal framework for elections should be accomplished within a period of 60 days.

The forum, called for during a Berlin conference in January 2020, builds on earlier peace initiatives, such as the planned 2019 National Conference. That conference had been canceled when General Khalifa Haftar — a retired Gadhafi-era general-turned CIA asset, and member of the opposition in 2011, with a support base in the eastern region — launched an attack on the capital Tripoli only days ahead of the scheduled commencement of political talks.

The absence, to date, of a permanent constitution for Libya reflects – and reinforces – the fragmentation and instability that have plagued the country since the 2011 fall of the late Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi. After an initial period of relative stability following the 2011 uprising, a dispute over the legitimacy of parliamentary elections held in 2014 effectively divided the country into two, with parallel governments and legislatures situated in the West and the East. The U.N.-brokered Libyan Political Agreement of December 2015 established a unity government that assumed its functions in Tripoli. With the support of the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Russia, and others, General Haftar emerged as a powerful spoiler of the peace process, which culminated in the recurrence of civil conflict in early 2019, when Haftar in the East began fighting the U.N.-backed government and aligned militias in the West.

Distributing Political Power and Oil Wealth

Previous attempts to forge consensus on a constitution, such as through processes outlined in the 2011 Constitutional Declaration and the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, have failed, as key divisive issues remain contested. In particular, issues of subnational governance arrangements and how to distribute political power and the nation’s enormous oil wealth are at the heart of the Libyan conflict.

Leaders in the country’s West, centered on the capital Tripoli, are promoting a national vision based on unity and a strong centralized government, while leaders based in the East voice grievances over political and socio-economic marginalization, and call for greater regional autonomy. Meanwhile, communities in the South, who are largely disconnected from the main government institutions and economic activity in the coastal regions, are demanding improved local governance and service delivery.

Historically, Libyans held a strong sense of national identity, in large part due to the authoritarian Gadhafi regime’s promotion of pan-Arabism and Islamism as the foundations of national identity. Yet, after almost a decade of instability and conflict, regional identities have become more pronounced and now generate significant support for political and military elites with regional power bases. As Libya embarks on a renewed initiative to foster sustainable peace and conclude its political transition, any constitutional framework to emerge from the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum will have to include some form of subnational governance arrangements that take account of the diverging aspirations of the various constituencies.

In our book for the World Bank, “Subnational Governance and Conflict,” we, together with our co-author, Asbjorn Wee, identified a number of critical lessons learned from peace processes in seven countries where subnational governance arrangements represented a central element of a new political settlement. These findings can be defined along three categories: the content of the agreement regarding institutions, and the process and context in which the accord is negotiated, implemented, and operated. Some of these insights are particularly relevant for the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, including the need for broad participation in the negotiation process, the absence of internal and external spoilers, and that the institutional arrangements agreed upon must address the main drivers of conflict effectively.

Inclusiveness of the political dialogue and constitution-making process in this sense refers to the participation of representatives of all segments of Libyan society. In addition to the 75 representatives participating in the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum, which include women, youth, minorities, and others, the U.N. also held online consultations with other Libyan communities to ensure the views of a cross-section of society are heard. But it remains to be seen whether the U.N. will be able to both bring Libya’s deeply divided and regionally entrenched elites into the fold and also give voice to the demands of the people.

Divisions on a Plebiscite

Such efforts have failed before. For example, despite the support expressed by representatives from youth, minorities, and women’s organizations, a referendum has been blocked on the 2017 constitutional proposal that had been adopted by the Constitutional Drafting Assembly in a contested vote in July 2017 and was intended to serve as a legal basis for subsequent elections. Haftar loyalists and members of the two parallel legislative authorities in the East and the West are opposed to a plebiscite, dissatisfied with the provisions of the constitutional proposal and fearing that elections would bring in a new cadre of representatives. Unable to accommodate these divergent views, participants of the forum dismissed the 2017 constitutional proposal altogether and agreed that “new” constitutional arrangements should be formulated.

This will be a particularly challenging task, as backing by external actors of various opposing factions has become one of the main factors determining the dynamics of Libya’s conflict. In addition to the external support for Haftar that enabled him to leverage his military strength to derail the transitional process, the U.N.-backed government in Tripoli has also benefited from external backing. Turkey’s direct military support since January 2020 of the U.N.-recognized government tipped the balance of power, leading to a military stalemate that eventually opened the door for political talks in the summer and eventually led to the October 2020 ceasefire agreement and the subsequent launch of the Libya Political Dialogue Forum. Moreover, European countries and the United States have failed to agree upon and develop a coherent policy towards the Libyan crisis, which in turn further hampered the effectiveness of the U.N. A lack of political support from the international community, including the U.N., for the work of the Constitutional Drafting Assembly and the resulting 2017 constitutional proposal, has been described by many Libyans as a major obstacle to completing the constitution-making process, and with it the political transition.

Amidst deepening regional divisions and with rivaling factions emboldened by external backing, accommodating the divergent regional aspirations has become increasingly challenging. Eastern leaders perceived the 2017 constitutional proposal as failing to guarantee meaningful subnational governance in the form of greater political, financial, and administrative autonomy. They had called for federalism based on Libya’s three historical regions of Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenaica in the east, and Fezzan in the south.

Instead, the 2017 constitutional proposal offered only a weak form of decentralization based on governorates and municipalities and left it to future parliamentary legislation to determine the authority and competencies of these subnational units. Thus, eastern, and to some extent southern, leaders believed their aspirations had been dismissed and felt justified in opposing the 2017 proposal.

The events of the past decade make clear that some form of subnational governance that builds on the 2017 constitutional proposal will need to be part of the outcome of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum. For the East and the South, a model that genuinely responds to their grievances will be key to ensuring sustainable peace.

Considering that past efforts to conclude the transitional period have failed, it will be equally important to adopt legally enshrined guarantees on possible steps to complete the constitutional process. The recently agreed upon roadmap offers some assurances in this direction, and adherence to it will be crucial in ensuring the successful conclusion of the constitutional process and of the implementation of subnational governance arrangements to be provided for in the proposed legal framework.

(Co-authored with Simona Ross. Originally published in Just Security.)