Libya was founded as a democracy. It is not too late to be a democracy again.
Eleven years ago, Libyans tried to reclaim their freedoms from an autocratic regime and acquire the protections of democratic government. But since then, all efforts to provide Libyans with those freedoms have failed. At best, they fizzled out; at worst, they have ended in terror and war. On June 22, the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum’s road map—the United Nations’ latest attempt to build Libyan democracy—expires. Libyans are now holding their breath for what the next failure will bring.
All attempts have failed to establish a legitimate government because all attempts have ignored Libya’s distinctive history. This has to change, and Libya’s recent history is a good starting point.
Every country has a national identity, which develops its institutions. While the world’s great democracies share similar values, they express those values differently. The U.S. Bill of Rights wouldn’t work in France; France’s powerful presidency wouldn’t work in the U.S. Yet both institutions are democratic and legitimate because they formed out of a shared history. History is the basis of national identity, which forces ordinary people, not only politicians, to think and care about the nation’s future.
Like any other country, Libya needs links to the past. It has them. Libyans are not building a country from scratch but picking up where they left off more than 50 years ago.
Libya came into the world as a democracy. After decades of colonization and war, the newly founded U.N. placed Libya on the track to independence in 1947. Then as now, Libya was racked by geographic and tribal divides. To find a solution, the U.N.’s lead negotiator,
engaged with hundreds of Libyans, weak and powerful alike. Pelt and his colleagues concluded that a constitutional monarchy would be the most effective way of uniting three regions and more than 100 tribes. The Senussi family, which led Libya’s resistance against colonialism and lacked a tribal affiliation, offered a solid basis for a national identity. With the support of Libyans, the United Kingdom of Libya was founded in 1951.
For 18 years, Libya was an evolving parliamentary democracy. It had universal suffrage, an independent judiciary, regular elections, freedom of religion and freedom of the press. Women could vote in Libya before they could in Switzerland or Portugal. But in 1969—two days before my father,
Crown Prince Hasan,
was to become king—Libya’s fledgling democracy, under the rule of a constitutional monarch, was overthrown in a coup, swept up in a tide of pan-Arabism and Cold War. Libya was a dictatorship for 42 years.
In recent months, Libyans have spoken out—at rallies in more than a dozen cities, and on new social media pages with tens of thousands of followers—for a simple idea: that restoring the pre-1969 constitution is the only viable path to restoring our country’s unity, its institutions’ legitimacy and a sense of national identity.
Since 2011, the world has not considered this option. We have instead witnessed initiatives based on conjecture and wishful thinking. The outcome has been a deadlock that has enriched and enabled domestic and foreign actors to be indifferent to the suffering of ordinary Libyans.
Although it may seem hopeless, there is a chance to resume Libya’s democratic journey. The pre-1969 constitution and the precedent of history have forged this path before. And if Libyans again decide they want a constitutional monarchy, it will be my sacred duty—to my ancestors, to my family and to my nation—to serve them. I ask, on behalf of all Libyans, that we be finally allowed to decide for ourselves.
Seventy years ago, the U.N. helped Libyans create a democracy of their own by accounting for Libya’s culture, society and need for a unified identity. It can do it again by listening to ordinary Libyans rather than a small and corrupt elite. The option of restoring Libya’s Independence Constitution—the product of inspired U.N. mediation—should be put on the table where it belongs. This is a historic opportunity and it must not go to waste.
Mr. el-Senussi is crown prince of Libya.
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