The European Union has for years invested its diplomatic efforts, as well as millions of Euros, into bringing a sense of security to Libya, ostensibly protecting Europe from the pressures of migratory flows via the Mediterranean, illicit drug trafficking, and the broader destabilizing effects of the Libyan Civil War.
With the December 24 elections nearing, the EU—as well as the bloc’s individual members that spearheaded individual efforts—are banking on establishing legitimacy for a new Libyan state through the first democratic elections in the country’s history.
The window of opportunity for achieving much-needed stability is alarmingly shrinking, however. With no real breakthrough materializing from the German-sponsored Berlin Conferences, the United Nations-backed Geneva talks, and several other multilateral meetings held under Italian stewardship, Libya still lacks the constitution foundations required for stabilization. A myriad of foreign armed mercenaries continue to be stationed within the country’s borders, and the Government of National Unity (GNU), led by Abdul Hamid Dbeibah and built on the system of muhasasa, or factional and regional divisions, raise further causes for concern.
Elections on their own are insufficient for guaranteeing long-term EU goals and, of course, those of Libyan citizens themselves. Preparing for the elections, conducting them in an orderly manner, and, perhaps most importantly, protecting the integrity of the results, represent the greatest test in over a decade of international efforts.
Should the elections be delayed or altogether fail to be held, there is a serious risk of Libya reverting back to a state of chaos defined by competition for power between rival tribal factions, armed groups, as well as independent militias affiliated with the various foreign powers on the ground.
Such instability would once again provide fertile ground for criminal organizations operating within Libya as well as across borders to engage in migrant smuggling, human and drug trafficking, terrorism, as well as the illicit export of oil and petroleum—all at the expense of Libyans, their European partners and the broader international community.
Via its programs of support, as part of the European Neighbourhood Instrument, the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, and the Instrument Contributing to Stability and Peace, among others, the EU has endeavoured to mitigate the most immediate effects of instability and the root causes for migration in Libya with over €700 million since 2016.
Besides organized criminal enterprises, however, instability, or at least the prolongation of the current state of affairs, would benefit multiple state actors too. In lieu of a strong national government, capable of monopolizing the legitimate means of physical force in the classical Weberian sense, the Turkish, Russian and Emirati governments will be able to pursue their various monetary and economic interests relatively freely and at the detriment of Libyans.
On the other hand, numerous functionaries of the Dbeibah-government itself might find themselves benefitting from temporarily or even indefinitely delaying the elections. As Dbeibah extensively relied on the practices of muhasasa, that is, appointing members of government based on tribal affiliations and favors of support, the GNU, ended up being linked to local armed groups and illicit enterprises via myriad ties. Undoubtedly, the current governmental arrangements are much preferred for the survival of these networks.
For the latter reason, Dbeibah and the GNU’s period of governance should under no circumstances extend beyond the set December deadline as it would only proliferate opportunities for the strengthening of Libya’s shadow economy and its illicit operations defined by idiosyncratic ties.
One of the greatest mistakes the EU, or any or its 27 members, must avoid is assuming that elections will introduce democracy to Libyan politics. As Afghanistan most recently exhibited, it is precisely the other way around. A well-functioning democratic civil society and existing constitutional and state guarantees are prerequisites for successful democratic elections. Libya, in contrast, is a country where broader democratic processes have yet to take root.
Of course, preexisting EU initiatives have not been completely blind to the fact that laying the groundworks of democracy in civil society is a cornerstone in any preparation for a democratic shift In close cooperation with the UN, the EU has sponsored civil society organizations and youth groups, encouraged the dissemination of information about good governance, the protection of human rights, and the rule of law, as well as provided conflict resolution training inside Libya. The EU did well to promote such initiatives, but has not managed to reach a significant portion of Libyan society.
In recent months, academic commentators have raised the alternative idea of restoring Libya’s monarchical institutions with important constitutional guarantees for democracy and the protection of minority rights. The idea itself had occurred to certain Libyan political activist groups too before, but never garnered serious attention from Western state sponsors.
With virtually no guarantees in place at the moment for the protection of the outcome of the December elections and the successful functioning of the new state—other than perhaps the utterly undesirable prospect of securing Libya via UN-led forces—the protection of the state via a non-executive and impartial monarch does not represent a far-fetched idea.
Should elections be conducted without a constitution in place, fervent debates can be expected about laying down the foundations of a new Libya. This will, unfortunately, provide the country with ample opportunities to relapse into divisions, and potentially even conflict, inevitably leading its experiment in democratic governance towards failure.
This is exactly where a monarch could stand as a bridge between different branches of government and important stakeholders in society, representing a sense of stability while the country tests the waters of democratic rule.
Restoring the al-Senussi family, the only legitimate heir to Libya’s short-lived monarchical period, would, of course, be no easy task. Having been in exile for over five decades and not looking to step up as additional claimants of power on an already ravaged political scene, the Senussis would have considerable work to undertake to legitimize themselves, even as independent actors in a new Libya.
Yet perhaps this is precisely the reason why EU actors should consider the constitutional monarchical route as a viable plan of action. Looking to avoid another military confrontation by all means, only by introducing a truly impartial authority figure, not linked to any of the rival local tribes or foreign military interests, could serve as the protector of a stable and independent state.
By having exhausted virtually all diplomatic and development avenues, the EU must consider novel, even if unusual, ideas for bringing stability to long-term stability to Libya. Constitutional monarchies are certainly foreign to the agendas of Western policy-makers.
Nevertheless, the independent safeguards that a monarchy could provide the new Libyan state are worth considering in a country where interests and stakeholders seem to be endlessly proliferating. This would certainly be preferable to banking on an unsustainable amalgam of international stakeholders who only have their own best interests at heart.
Ashraf Boudouara – Libya-based political analyst and chairman of the National Conference for the Return of the Constitutional Monarchy.