It has been over three years since the NATO-led military intervention that overturned what was left of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime yet the optimism that accompanied these political transformations in Libya and across the Arab world now feels decades away. Such is the disenchantment with what was expectantly heralded as the Arab Spring in 2011.
Egypt seems to have substituted one military strongman for another with the election of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. In Syria, there seems to be no end in sight for the bloodbath that was the revolution and Libya is perched on the edge of a precipice, one move from falling into complete anarchy.
To get an idea as to how bleak the situation in Libya has become, one has to look no further than the country’s recent parliamentary elections. With voter turnout hovering somewhere around 18.5% (only 44% of eligible Libyans registered at all), there is little hope that any of the country’s new ‘representatives’ can garner much legitimacy. Indeed, Fathi al-Gabasi from the Eastern community of Aoudjila was elected to parliament with only three votes.
Moreover, the entire election took place in a context of extreme sectarian violence, which unfortunately has become commonplace in modern-day Libya. One candidate, Mohamed Kwakwai, was assassinated in the southern city of Sebha before the final ballot was cast, as was the internationally-recognized lawyer and human rights activist Salwa Bugaighis, who was stabbed several times at her home by masked men before being shot in the head. According to Reuters, at least 4 people were killed in heavy clashes between Islamists and government forces in Benghazi, while scores more were wounded.
When good intentions don’t cut it
Though there is considerable debate over exactly what led the United States and her allies into Libya in 2011, it is clear that realist motivations were not among the most prominent. Rather, the charge towards Libya was headed by liberal interventionists such as Susan Rice, then Ambassador to the UN, and Samantha Power (the current US Ambassador to the UN), both of who were still haunted by the United States’ inaction in Rwanda under President Clinton. “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required,” Rice stated in 2001.
The crisis that Ambassador Rice encountered in Libya was very real. Having initially succeeded in wresting control of the cities of Benghazi and Tobruk, the rebel forces of Libya’s ‘Interim Transitional National Council’ had lost steam by March. Gaddafi’s forces were heading towards Benghazi in force, with the beleaguered dictator exhorting his army to “purify all decisions from these [rebel] cockroaches” and to execute “any Libyan who takes arms against Libya”.
The large coalition behind the Libyan intervention, or Operation Unified Protector (OUP), was therefore aimed first and foremost at preventing what promised to be a massacre of historical proportions and, to this extent, the operation succeeded. However laudable saving Libyans from one massacre and one tyrannical leader is, however, such actions are not responsible if Western states then leave these same Libyans at the mercy of a power vacuum, where countless rival warlords and rogue militias are wreaking havoc across the country. As the great political theorist Hans Morgenthau wrote, “There can be no political morality without prudence; that is, without consideration of the political consequences of seemingly moral action.”
Uniting a divided country
If Libya was allowed to descend so quickly into chaos in the aftermath of OUP, it is mostly because the United States, alongside her allies, insufficiently understood the country – its history, its beliefs, its people(s). One would think that, after so many years of failing to establish a Western-style democracy in Iraq, the US would think twice about pulling the same stunt elsewhere in the Middle East. Even if, in all fairness, President Obama has doubtlessly been reluctant to intervene in other foreign countries, the Libyan foray shows that the government seems to have failed to learn from its past foreign policy mistakes.
Like many states on the African continent, Libya’s current political identity bears little resemblance to the cultural identity of many of the country’s inhabitants. Historically, the country was split into three distinct regions – Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica – before being united under King Idris into a federal state in 1951. Under Gaddafi’s rule, a constant battle was waged against tribal and regional leaders, who often carried more heft among the population than state officials. Without a strong central leader, Libya sadly reverted back to its fragmented, tribal structure, which never truly disappeared.
The question now is how to unite Libyans, in all their diversity, under one common banner so that the country can begin moving forward towards a stable society governed by law. So far, the only workable solution seems to a leftfield proposal from Libya’s current Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohamed Abdel Aziz: a constitutional monarchy. According to Abdel Aziz, instating a monarch from King Idris’ lineage would act as a “political umbrella”, serving as a “uniting symbol for the nation”.
“I am not talking about a king who rules, but about a symbolic figure like in Belgium, Britain and Spain,” Abdel Aziz told the Saudi daily Al-Hayat in April. It will be complicated politically for the United States to endorse a political system that is not based on Washington’s idealized concept of democracy, yet it is difficult to deny that the idea has its merits. After a very ideological intervention, perhaps it is time for the US to roll up its realist sleeves and give constitutional monarchy a chance.