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4 June 2015

Where next for Libya?

Libya has fallen victim to poor planning and wooly thinking. But a document from the country's past could save its future.

By Daniel Kawczynski

As I said in several speeches at the time, it was clear, even in 2011, that without something to unite Libyans that resonates with them and that they understand, the fissures within Libyan society would result in extreme factionalism that would tear Libya apart posing grave risks for Libyans, for Libya’s neighbours and for international security.

But the euphoria of the Arab spring had gripped Libyans and non-Libyans alike and even though over a 42 year period, and on so many levels, Libya had suffered an extreme hollowing out of the state and civil society, almost everyone thought these views were out of touch with reality and out of step with the new political paradigm. In fact, I remember several dismissive comments from senior diplomats, politicians and civil servants at the time.  For example:

“Tribalism is a rural phenomenon and not applicable to what is now predominantly an urban population”.

“There is no sectarian divide in Libya and so unity will be easy to maintain”.

“There will be no arms proliferation because a national army and police force are almost universally supported and already beginning to take shape”.

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“We have proven beyond doubt that if you provide the context and means for free and fair elections, the rest will then follow naturally”.

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These beliefs were very typical and almost universally held.

But after three and a half years the early optimism has become almost entirely extinguished.

I take no satisfaction in having been proven right. There are no rewards for being right in this context. The Libyan people are suffering untold miseries. The international community is struggling to define a coherent policy with the risks and costs of a failing or failed state only too apparent.

With the benefit of hindsight, the common assessment is either that failure was a result of not having “planned for the day after intervention” – which incidentally is the common conclusion with regards to other interventions such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Or else, the assessment is that intervention fails because intervention just does not work.

The objective here is not to have a philosophical debate about the merits of intervention. Whatever the case for and against, in an increasingly multipolar world, intervention is probably here to stay and that includes military intervention. In fact, in Libya, in spite of the public announcements of some countries who stand against further military intervention, at least until a unity government is formed, other countries continue to intervene militarily as we speak as a recent UN report has detailed.

So, let me turn to the first question, is the failure in Libya due to not having prepared for the day after intervention?

I believe that the majority of ordinary Libyans today would agree that it is due to this – but not in the way it might be assumed.

The popular view outside Libya is to point to shortcomings in the preparations for a national police force, a national army and the like.

But increasingly, Libyans are coming round to the idea that far too few people prepared for the even more fundamental political issues a hollowed out state would face when its central tyrannical authority of 42 years suddenly ended – as it was bound to do sooner or later. Specifically:


  • What would provide the basis for unity in a tribal country which for historic reasons is especially prone to its own particular form of factionalism and division?


  • What would be the basis of political legitimacy, authority and  trust going forward? Would it work and be sustainable?


  • How best could stability be restored to allow sufficient time and space for the necessary state and civil institutions to emerge?


Credible and workable answers to these fundamental and inter-related questions were always going to be the pre-requisites for political success overall and for the successful creation and sustenance of every national institution.

But these questions were either not thought through at all, or else were thought through superficially using an ideological or political lense, that as we can all see today, and as I pointed out to all those I met in 2011, just simply did not fit and never had a realistic chance of succeeding.

In a deeply tribal country, with additional regional, societal and political fissures that are easy to exploit, but a country without a sufficient tradition of representative government and consensus politics, and without any of the key institutions of civil society or state, the reliance on the western democratic tradition and political processes as a one size fits all, was never going to give a credible and workable starting point once the dictator fell.

It is astonishing to me and to many Libyans how even the most experienced and sophisticated of political actors within the international community continue not to appreciate or want to appreciate this, even in the face of almost four years of unequivocal evidence.

We have already had several unity governments since the 2011 revolution, but each time the unity has unraveled.

I am certain there has been plenty of good intention on all sides, this is also undoubtedly the case with the current discussions regarding a new unity government.

But crucially, a unity that is forged around the negotiating table or via any other political process that does not then hold and translate into a sufficiently united country is unfortunately not unity at all. It is just wishful thinking.

Let’s hope that the current process leads to a new unity government that will break the mould…but even if it comes about it is difficult to see how it can avoid the fate of other unity governments that have gone before.

So where does this leave Libya?

What is clear is that the vast majority of Libyans are entirely unhappy with the current state of play. None of the options that the various political processes have produced or are likely to produce seem to them ultimately able to attract enough support from a wide enough base for a long enough period of time to make a difference.

Voter turnout has been very low, with each poll attracting fewer voters than the one before – the last nationwide vote I believe had only 15 to 20 per cent of the electorate voting with the vast majority of Libyans therefore increasingly disengaged with the process and the options on the table.

Furthermore, the political and security vacuum has created space for some fanatical forces on the ground. These dark forces thrive on chaos and know how to use it to their advantage.  Whilst they are a serious issue, they have no basis, foundation or long-term prospect in Libya. They are predominantly foreigners and have little to no popular support since Libya has a longstanding and well-enshrined moderate sufi tradition. They will exist only until unity eludes Libya.

The vacuum has also allowed a number of foreign countries to get involved on one side or other and pursue their own self-interests. This has created a proxy war. An additional and unhelpful layer of division adding fuel to the fire and, in the eyes of the Libyan population, destroying the reputation of those countries involved.

So in Libya today you have many sides and no credible centre…and with no centre Libya spins further out of control. Libyans are further away from their aspirations than at any time since 2011. We may be looking at further lost generations of Libyans as the education system, the health system, the economy and the lives of ordinary Libyans fall apart and unpalatable forces continue to exploit the chaos that is Libya today.

But a growing number of Libyans now believe there may be a way forward.

If you are able to look beneath the surface, there is growing evidence of a grass roots movement in Libya that offers a different track towards a functioning democratic state. In the major cities across Libya, including Tripoli and Benghazi, there have been demonstrations, conferences and debates in favour of the restoration of the 1951 Libyan Constitution. This is mirrored across countless Libyan social media pages. The volume is gradually increasing. It is across all ages, tribes, regions and cities. It is spontaneous. It is truly a grass roots phenomenon entirely independent from the current political actors.

The 1951 Constitution (amended in 1963) was drawn up by the Libyan National Assembly, with assistance from the United Nations. Crucially it provides for a democratic, parliamentary system, with a constitutional monarchy and universal adult suffrage.

The fundamental point is that at a grass roots level it is being increasingly recognised that from where things stand now, there may be no more solid and sensible basis available than the 1951 Constitution for political transition in Libya, and neither is any likely to be agreed and then win sufficient national support to be considered legitimate. 

There is growing support on the ground for the idea that an orderly transition to a new Libya may be best served by returning to the constitution that founded the Libyan nation and secured its independence. A constitution rooted in Libya’s history. A realistic political starting point that is familiar.  That has intrinsic legitimacy and authority. A constitution that was already the basis of unity once before and that presided over a period now recognized to be the most successful in Libya’s modern history.

Indeed, if the people of Libya succeed in restoring their 1951 constitution, they would put in place a tolerant, rights-based, democratic system of government, with a constitutional monarchy that would be a model for the region.