The Arab monarchies’ religious basis of legitimacy proved sturdier than that of the Arab republics
Six years after the fall of Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, Libya remains mired in conflict and political chaos. Devoid of any central authority or national security structure, the Libyan state now exists only in name. It is time for a new approach—one that the United States should actively support.
To be sure, Libya does have an internationally recognized government: the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), born of the December 2015 Libyan Political Agreement, signed in Skhirat, Morocco, under the auspices of the United Nations. But not only did that government receive a vote of no confidence from the Tobruk-based House of Representatives last August; it is being actively challenged by another Tripoli-based entity, the General National Congress (GNC), controlled largely by Islamist groups.
The bottom line is that Libya is now run by myriad mafia-style criminal groups and armed militias.
Their allegiance is divided among the two competing governments, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State (ISIS), which views the country as a province of its dwindling caliphate and an important refuge for members escaping the war in Syria and Iraq. Uncontrolled waves of migration from the country are now breaking across the Mediterranean into Europe.
Instead of resolving the Libyan conflict, the 2015 agreement merely reshaped it. The cumbersome text created a “presidency council” tasked with appointing a national unity government and an advisory council of ex-GNC members. Its underlying objective was to secure an inclusive transition to democratic governance and territorial integration.
But the strategy set out in the Libyan Political Agreement has proved to be utterly unworkable.
Perhaps that should not be surprising: the agreement represents a striking lack of historical perspective and cultural sensitivity.
Libya’s colonial and post-colonial history reflects a resistance to centralized institutions. As a result, the country lacks a shared national identity—a reality that the current civil war has aggravated.
Statehood came about in 1951 only through a constitution that balanced centralized power with extensive autonomy for Libya’s historic regions, Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, and Fezzan.
Under the 1951 constitution, the federal monarchy was led by King Idris as-Senussi, the architect of modern Libya and grandson of the dynasty’s founder. As chief of state, Sanussi appointed a prime minister and a council of ministers, accountable to both the king and the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of a bicameral legislature.
To reflect the country’s regional structure, the upper house of the legislature, the Senate, comprised eight representatives from each of the three historic regions. The national capital alternated between Tripoli and Benghazi.
But the Libyan Political Agreement of 2015 was not based on the legacy of the 1951 constitution.
Instead, it sought a source of legitimacy in the chaotic legacy of the current civil war. And it failed to recognize the importance of some decentralization. As a result, it was bound to fail.
What is the alternative? Libya is in no condition to run general elections. But a transitory head of state could be elected in a grand assembly of tribal leaders and notables, on the model of the Afghan Loya Jirga.
A decision about whether to reinstitute monarchy in Libya could be deferred, though there seems to be a case for it. The belief that hereditary rulers embody legitimate government and possess a religious sanction—as in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf dynasties— may be the only principle of political authority that survived the turmoil of the Arab Spring.
The Arab monarchies’ religious, even divine, basis of legitimacy proved sturdier than that of the Arab republics—Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia—where secular governments’ reliance on rigged elections and a repressive state apparatus eroded their authority. And, indeed, in none of the kingdoms did the Arab Spring protests aim at toppling the monarchy; the struggle was always and everywhere for reform.
The figure of the priest-king maintains a kind of intangible authority in many Arab societies. A secular version of that authority was also crucial in Spain’s transition to democracy in the 1970s, and remains fundamental to other Western constitutional monarchies. For Libya, recovering the collective memory of its foundation around the trinity of state, dynasty, and religion—the House of Senussi represents a religious Sufi order in neighboring countries—may well be the key to enabling peace and reconstruction. If the decision to reinstate the monarchy were made, there are pretenders available: princes from the House of Senussi who now live in exile in Europe.
Of course, reinstating such a system, based on the legacy of the 1951 constitution, would be no panacea for Libya, not least because the country has become a theater for competition among regional and global powers. Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the strongman at the service of the House of Representatives (and at the service of his own political ambition to become a Libyan version of Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi), now enjoys the support of Egypt and Russia.
Russia has deployed forces along the Egypt-Libya border, and even hosted Haftar on the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov. As in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin pretends that his efforts in Libya, clearly intended to advance his own strategic interests—such as securing control of Libya’s colossal oil fields—are intended to support the “fight against terrorism.” All of this gives Haftar leverage, and he would not support any agreement that would challenge his Libyan National Army or the House of Representatives’ authority.
The best way to offset that leverage may be to get another major power involved: the United States.
But US President Donald Trump recently rebuffed Italian Prime Minister Paulo Gentiloni’s suggestion that he should assume an active role in Libya, working with Europe to support the country’s reconstruction.
If the US wants to stem the rise of an extremist haven at Europe’s gates and prevent Libya from becoming another Russian playground, Trump will need to change his mind, and engage with his Western allies in state building in Libya. There are a few situations around the world—and this is one—where Trump’s unprecedented foreign-policy reversals might actually produce a positive outcome.