The 1951 Libyan constitution offered expansive political and social freedoms to its people and sections of it wouldn’t have been out of place in Western Europe. Article 11 guaranteed the rule of law, Article 21 freedom of conscience, and Article 23 freedom of the press. The parliamentary system was based on universal adult suffrage, at a time when Switzerland—that liberal beacon at the heart of Europe—didn’t allow women to vote in federal elections.
Unfortunately, it was replaced by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s eighty-two-page “Green Book,” the first volume of which was published in 1975. Far from resolving man’s problems, as Gaddafi once claimed his scribe had, it came to mark a cult of personality that was so detrimental to rights and freedoms in Libya. Tellingly, Bolivian president Evo Morales proclaimed his enthusiasm for the “thinking” contained within. Students were subject to countless hours of lectures on his theories.
Unsurprisingly, when the 2011 uprising began against Gaddafi, one of the first buildings to be attacked in Benghazi was the Centre for Recitation and Study of the Green Book. Burnt copies littered the streets. Just eight months later, Libyans were queueing to see his body.
A Decade of Discord
Since the 2011 upheaval, Libya has been riven by internal strife, perhaps unsurprisingly in a society divided into 140 main tribes and plethora of sub-tribes. The country has had several euphemistically labelled “unity” governments since 2011. The two current governments—the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), or what has come to be known as the Government of National Unity (GNU), is based in Tripoli, and the House of Representatives (HoR), Libya’s eastern parliament—seem irretrievably irreconcilable. In the east of the country, the location of much of the nation’s oil, seventy-eight-year-old renegade Khalifa Haftar and his so-called Libyan National Army (LNA) still hold sway.
With national elections due on December 24, the political situation remains fragile. Before then, the GNU and the outgoing three-member presidential council will have to dissolve peacefully, a tall order in a country as militarized and awash with weapons as is Libya today. Just last month, gunmen stormed a hotel in Tripoli used as a headquarters by the presidential council; while no one was hurt, the incident goes some way to demonstrating the volatility of the situation.
As in nature, after all, politics abhors a vacuum.
Libya today is one of the most corrupt countries in the world (above only some of the world’s worst failed states, including Yemen, Syria, and Venezuela), one of the very worst in which to do business (perhaps one of Libya’s most pressing worries), and, unsurprisingly, one of the least free (ranking worse than Yemen on Freedom House’s latest index). Since 2011, it has steadily made its way up the Fragile States Index.
What Libya—and Libyans—clearly needs is something or someone—a leader, a government, something—around which to rally.
The 1951 constitution is just that.
While Gaddafi pretended that Libya was a homogenous Arab Muslim state, ignoring important ethnic, linguistic, and religious differences to the detriment of all, the 1951 constitution and the system of government it provided for—a hereditary monarchy with a representative system of government—enjoyed broad support, and continues to do so to this day.
Technocracy—as the 1951 constitution provided for—is an oft-maligned form of rule, yet it certainly has its place, particularly in times of crisis. Witness the appointment of Mario Draghi as Italian prime minister in February, for instance, which was crucial in stabilizing a political system that was teetering on the edge.
This is evidenced by nominal support for the restoration of the 1951 constitution and the monarchy among a broad mix of Libyans. Encouragingly, those campaigning for the “Return of Constitutional Legitimacy” have been genuine grassroots movements. Tribal leaders and politicians, too, are receptive to the idea of re-establishing a constitutional monarchy. Mohamed Abdelaziz, foreign minister from 2013 to 2014, called for the rule of a symbolic monarch—as in Belgium, Britain, and Spain—vowing to “take it upon himself” to push for the return of the monarchy. Far from being, as some have argued, an unviable policy option, Abdelaziz was right to argue that the monarchy’s return is the best solution for the restoration of security and stability in his country.
The monarchy acted as a symbol of unity, bolstered by the popularity of King Idris and the Senussi family. It could do so again today. William H. Lewis, a specialist on the region, argued that ‘Idris’ political primacy was inevitable due to his acceptability among most Libyan political factions and competing groups as a compromise candidate, a political figure without any special axes to grind.
Idris died in 1983; his nephew and crown prince, Hasan as-Senussi, died of a heart attack nine year later in London at the age of sixty-five. Before his passing, Hasan appointed Mohammed, his second son, as the Head of the Royal House of Libya. He is considered by Libyan royalists as the legitimate heir. In 2011, he appeared in the European Parliament and voiced his preference for the restoration of the 1951 constitution. That would be the best option for Libya.
Having been in exile since 1988, Mohammed—like Idris—would have no special axe to grind. The same cannot be said for many in Libya. He would remain above the fray of venal and divisive politicians, serving as a focal point of national unity that would transcend tribalism and religious issues.
His return might once again encourage Libyans to think of themselves as Libyans before they think of themselves as belonging to a specific tribal group. As a piece in The North Africa Post urged, the UN should “give a chance to a constitutional monarchy.”
The monarchy is just the glue a shattered Libya needs.
Sometimes one must look to the past for the right way forward.
Shlomo Roiter Jesner is the President and Co-Founder of the Cambridge Middle East and North Africa Forum (www.cmenaf.org). He holds a BA in International Relations and Politics from the University of Cambridge and an MA in Economic and Global Risk from the Johns Hopkins University (SAIS). Shlomo is also the CEO of London-based F&R Strategy Group (www.frstrategy.co.uk), a geopolitical consultancy at the intersection of politics and business.