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The Ramifications Of A Lack Of A National Identity In Libya – Analysis

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As the Taliban retook Afghanistan, President Putin of Russia marshalled events there as evidence of the injudiciousness of Western policy. In his interpretation, it was proof that the time had come for the West to end the “irresponsible policy of imposing foreign values from abroad” and decried the counterproductive desire to “build democracy in other countries according to foreign templates … and completely ignoring the traditions by which other nations live”.

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While, all too often, Putin has deployed such concepts in justification of the autocratic rule he imposes in Russia and his allies impose around the world, there is something to be said for such caution on the part of the West when it comes to another country that finds itself in grave danger: Libya. 

Late last year, the UN announced that national elections would take place in Libya on 24 December 2021 following talks in Tunis. On 8 September, the House of Representatives ratified a law mandating direct presidential elections, shortly after which the embassies of major Western powers backed the UN’s call for elections to be held according to the schedule.

Ján Kubiš, the head of the UN’s Support Mission in Libya, not too long ago, called for elections to be held that are as “inclusive and credible elections as possible under the demanding and challenging conditions and contradictions”. He warned that failure to hold elections could deepen divisions and ignite conflict. Rather, imperfect elections – and, in fact, any elections at all given the present situation in Libya – as Kubiš appeared to support, would be more likely to prompt a period of political instability than aid Libya on its path to progress.

Thus, just shy of a month before presidential elections are meant to take place, rather than marking Libyan independence day with elections that ostensibly will see the county move forward, it looks increasingly likely that holding elections so soon will deepen the present crisis in Libya. The beginning of this is already evident, with a slew of court rulings excluding the likes of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and Khalifa Haftar from contending in the upcoming election. 

Whispering Bell, a risk management consultancy, recently warned that opposition to elections in the western parts of Libya may result in “direct attacks on election-related assets”, including those of the High National Elections Commission and even potential candidates. Fighting in Tripoli earlier this month was the worst in a year.

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A certain level of state capacity is required in order for elections – and elections considered legitimate by the population – to be held. Libya, at present, sorely lacks sufficient state capacity. Similar issues plagued elections scheduled for 2018 before they were suspended owing to outbreaks of violence. Then, ISPI noted that “among the people formally called Libyan, we’re a very long way from elections being uppermost in their minds.” The same sentiment holds true today.

ISPI also noted that it is the sense of Libyan nationhood – or lack thereof – that will determine Libya’s fate in the near term. It is there that focuses in the country should be channelled. At present, given the noticeable lack of a national identity, elections would, as above, more likely harm the country than aid it. As Igor Cherstich, an expert on Libya at UCL, wrote in 2011, “Any force attempting to take the reins of the country must demonstrate national legitimacy”. At present, that is a distant possibility.

What is as crucial, in the long run, as halting violence, then, is working toward the establishment of comprehensive national identity in Libya. The achievement of the latter, in fact, is highly likely to have a positive impact on the former and is a central prerequisite to successful elections.

As has long been the case in Libya, individuals draw their identities from tribal, familial, or regional factors, undermining any coherent sense of national identity. Such divisions can be traced back to Italian colonisation policies in the country, which divided Libyans. That is perhaps little wonder in a society divided into 140 main tribes and plethora of sub-tribes. Thomas Friedman even went as far as to argue that Libya was not “real country”, rather merely a bunch of “tribes with flags”. As the United Nations Development Programme foresaw, the entrenchment of divisive political and militia groups in the decade since the overthrow of Gaddafi has undermined the re-establishment of an inclusive national identity. 

Instead of marking independence day with such potentially harmful elections, then, Libyans should look to the man who took the crown on that day in 1951: King Idris. The reimposition of the rule of the Senoussi clan established under the 1951 constitution would see Libya restoring the unitary state which once existed, reflecting the consolidation of a unifying Libyan national identity. The pertinence of that movement, interrupted by Gaddafi’s 40 years of tyranny, although historically been limited to the east of the country, is more evident today than ever before. 

Others have indeed taken up the cause, including genuinely grassroots movements in favour of the restoration of the system devised by the 1951 constitution. Their position, however, warrants far greater – and far more serious – consideration. Instead of focusing on international efforts that have thus far amounted to nothing and divide the country more than they unite it, those interested in the future of Libya must look towards movements whose essence stem from a desire to create the basis for what is so sorely lacking in Libya today; cohesive national identity. 

*Alamin Shtiwi Abolmagir is the Deputy Director of the Libyan Organization for the Return of Constitutional Legitimacy.

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