Constitutional monarchy, which attunes with Libya’s history, remains Libya’s path to democracy.

Khaled Assari

The UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) has failed in nearly every conceivable objective. Its shortcomings are concurrently structural and individual: a poorly designed mandate, an almost total disregard for Libyan political history, and rapid turnover of personnel. The lack of progress on the ground is wholly unsurprising. 

It is beyond time to move past the UN’s bureaucratic holding-pattern strategy and damaging “cookie-cutter” political formulae that simply don’t fit and therefore won’t work no matter how many times they are tried. Libya is deeply tribal and factional. To be  viable, the solution in Libya can only result from engaging robustly with Libya’s unique history to ensure it contains the necessary ingredients of national identity to be sufficiently unifying.

UNSMIL was established shortly after the end of Libya’s First Civil War. Muammar Gaddafi, Libya’s long-time dictator, was deposed in a brief internal conflict. Libya’s rebels received extensive air support from NATO along with intelligence and arms assistance from the most powerful Arab states, particularly Qatar and the UAE. Initially, the Libyan case was held up as an exemplary post-Iraq reaction, with the United States “leading from behind” and avoiding any ground commitment.   

Western air and naval assets, impervious to a response from Gaddafi’s forces, dismantled their enemy through a series of precision strikes which enabled a loose coalition of anti-regime units to topple Gaddafi.  Libyans themselves caused a transformation within their country, not the West.  Leading from behind was, seemingly, a wiser approach than the past decade’s blunders.

After the military victory, the baton was handed to the UN to midwife Libya into a democracy. UNSMIL was meant to be a short political support mission, meant to lay the groundwork for free and fair elections. Elections would then create a new government that would appoint a president and pass a constitution, thus ensuring Libya’s long-term political stability.

UNSMIL’s fundamental mistake, however, was to assume that democracy would work in post-Gaddafi Libya even if devoid of situational context. Ironically a similar mistake was made in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

In each of these cases, with the UN as the active and enthusiastic convener, there was a rush to a democratic transition that did not in fact result in democracy, but instead fuelled multiple rounds of conflict, entrenched political dysfunction and even civil war because ill-conceived political structures simply reflected divisions within society, highlighting them served to deepen them, rather than create the necessary binding glue for a new more united political culture. 

The form of democracy matters

There are different forms of democracy – parliamentary (many different models with several (e.g the UK, Sweden, Norway, Denmark etc) including a constitutional monarchy), presidential (a variety of different models) and semi-presidential (slightly less common but again a number of different models).

Just like switching round the French Presidential model and the UK’s Parliamentary model (a constitutional monarchy) would likely result in political and institutional dysfunction in both countries, imposing forms of democracy in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq, that have little connection to each country’s own and unique national political history and demography is clearly a recipe for democratic failure.  The lesson is that the form of democracy matters. 

In this light, the General National Congress (GNC)—Libya’s elected transitional government—simply reflected the divisions within Libyan society between the country’s west and east, Islamists andThe UN’s Failures Require a New Path in Libya secularists, liberals and conservatives. UNSMIL oversaw and endorsed this process, all without engaging in the development of a new Libyan security system. 

The combination of UN inattention and a political structure without any organisational coherence created the space for newly-elected leaders to create private militias. By 2014, when the GNC unilaterally extended its mandate, its credibility had completely vanished, opening the way to a second civil war. 

The GNC’s failings, meanwhile, were entirely predictable in light of Libyan history. Libya was politically stable from independence in 1951 until 1969, under a democratic constitutional monarchy headed by King Idris al-Senussi, the head of the Senussi Sufi religious order that had brought sanity and unity to the country over the previous century.  The Senussi had eliminated the Libyan slave trade, brought enough social stability to enable economic flourishing, resisted French and Italian imperialism, supported the Allies during the Second World War and in doing all, helped build a strong but fledgling national identity.

King Idris established a system that gave Libyans space and time to acclimate to democratic structures, via a parliamentary democracy, while taking the core issue of national unity out of the realm of debate.  The 1951 Libyan Constitution’s broad protections for freedom of speech, religion, and conscience created a fundamentally liberal character of the state. Idris’ success and fundamental fairness as ruler explains his popularity, which continues to this day, despite Gaddafi’s concerted effort to wipe him from history. UNSMIL never recognised this history, and never once engaged with Libya’s political past or the lessons of what it could offer for the present. 

Libya’s Second Civil War was the result of a system that failed. The Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), the successor to the GNC, and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, comprised of delegates elected in 2014, split the country. Politics became yet another area of contestation over fundamental differences between Libya’s internal actors. But despite the second war, UNSMIL’s mandate was not changed. Nor was its director given more time to become familiarised with the country.  Every UNSMIL chief has been rotated after one year.

Indeed, one of the most recent diplomats charged with leading UNSMIL, Stephanie Williams, did her most effective work during her unexpected acting extended term at UNSMIL. Her successor, Jan Kubis, resigned on the eve of the Libyan elections in 2021, reportedly because his impending retirement meant he was not willing to leave the comfort of European diplomatic residences to engage on the ground. 

UNSMIL’s current leader, African Union-backed Abdoulaye Bathily, reportedly has a brusque manner; but he is at least actually committed to his job. Nevertheless, the fact that the African Union has been given a significant stake in Libyan affairs through its preferred appointee is bizarre, as Libya is fundamentally a Mediterranean issue. Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East should take the lead, but has wasted its last shot.

Libya’s Second Civil War ended in 2020. But its two key factions still receive external support, primarily from Russia and Turkey, as well as attention from the international community. The pause on large-scale violence stems more from Turkish and Russian preoccupation with other issues—chief among them Ukraine— than a durable peace settlement. Re-escalation is possible at any time, with the attendant risks of refugee flows, broader terrorist attacks, and disruption to Mediterranean commerce and oil exports. 

Moreover, as Sudan’s crisis escalates, Libya will likely become a conduit for weapons and other support. After all, the LNA’s Khalifa Haftar has provided the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces – the group now in control of Khartoum – with weapons since 2019, likely with Russian backing. 

A new path forward would involve two major differences.  

First, whether under UNSMIL or another body, an external stabilising force must be charged with a broader mandate that includes security stabilisation and have  long-term staff.  Rotating leadership every 12 months is deleterious to any effective negotiations.

Second, and most critically, stabilisation efforts must reconceptualize their understanding of a political settlement.  The goal is not to broker a sustainable ceasefire.  This logic will lead to a rerun of 2011-2014, where the government became a battleground for factional interest that made renewed conflict nigh inevitable.  Rather, the goal should be to create and provide support for a government that is legitimately independent of Libyan factionalism, that unites the Libyan people, and that has the authority and means to act against threats to the country, the greatest of which will remain non-state armed groups with international backing.

The only government that can serve in this independent fashion is the democratic  constitutional monarchy, which attunes with Libya’s history. Any organisation engaged in Libyan political development must draw off the wealth of respect that the Senussi still command and create a system that removes the most fundamental questions of state from political debate.  The monarchy remains Libya’s path to democracy. In fact, in a very recent poll by the online Libyan news channel Akhbarlibya24, over 83% of voters back this option. It’s time the UN started to listen to ordinary Libyans as opposed to just its self-serving political incumbents.



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