BRUSSELS — It has been over three years since the NATO-led military intervention that overturned what was left of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. The optimism of that moment of political transformation in Libya and across the Arab world now feels decades away. Such is the disenchantment with what was expectantly heralded as the Arab Spring in 2011.
Egypt seems to have substituted one military strongman for another with the election of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. In Syria, there seems to be no end in sight for the bloodbath the revolution has become, and Libya is perched on the edge of a precipice, one move from anarchy.
One has to look no further than Libya’s recent parliamentary elections to understand how bleak the situation has become. With voter turnout hovering around 18.5 percent — only 44 percent of eligible Libyans registered to vote — little hope exists that any of the country’s new “representatives” can gain much legitimacy. Fathi al-Gabasi from the Eastern community of Aoudjila, for example, was elected to parliament with only three votes.
The election took place under extreme sectarian violence, now common place in modern-day Libya. One candidate, Mohamed Kwakwai, was assassinated in the southern city of Sebha before the final ballot was cast.
The internationally-recognized lawyer and human rights activist Salwa Bugaighis was stabbed several times at her home by masked men before being shot in the head. According to Reuters, at least 4 people were killed in heavy clashes between Islamists and government forces in Benghazi, while scores more were wounded.
It seems clear that realistic motivations were not among the reasons leading the United States and its allies into Libya in 2011. The charge towards Libya was headed by interventionists such as Susan Rice, then US ambassador to the UN, and Samantha Power, current US Ambassador to the UN, both of whom were still haunted by the United States’ inaction in Rwanda under President Clinton.
The crisis that Ambassador Rice encountered in Libya was very real. Having initially succeeded in wresting control of the cities of Benghazi and Tobruk, the rebel forces of Libya’s “Interim Transitional National Council” had lost steam by March 2011. Gaddafi’s forces were heading towards Benghazi in force, with the beleaguered dictator exhorting his army to “purify all decisions from these [rebel] cockroaches” and to execute “any Libyan who takes arms against Libya.”
The large coalition behind the Libyan intervention, or Operation Unified Protector (OUP), was aimed first at preventing what promised to be a massacre of historical proportions. To this extent, the operation succeeded.
Saving Libyans from one massacre and one tyrannical leader may be laudable, but ultimately not a responsible act if Libyans are then left to the mercy of a power vacuum, enabling rival warlords and rogue militias to wreak havoc across the country.
If Libya was allowed to descend so quickly into chaos in the aftermath of OUP, the fault lies mainly in the failure of the United States, alongside its allies, to understand Libyan history, beliefs and people.
After failing to establish a Western-style democracy in Iraq, it is fair to suggest the US might have thought twice about applying a similar recipe elsewhere in the Middle East.
Libya’s current political identity bears little resemblance to the cultural roots of many of Libyans. Historically, the country was split into three distinct regions — Tripolitania, Fezzan and Cyrenaica — before uniting into a federal state under King Idris in 1951.
Gaddafi waged a continuing battle against tribal and regional leaders, who often carried more influence among the population than state officials. Without a strong central leader, Libya sadly reverted to its fragmented, tribal structure.
The question now is how to unite Libyans, in all their diversity, under a common banner so that the country can begin moving toward a stable society under the rule of law. The only workable solution so far seems to a proposed constitutional monarchy proposed by Libya’s current Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohamed Abdel Aziz.
The idea of establishing a monarchy from King Idris’ lineage, he said, would be a “political umbrella,” that would serve as a “uniting symbol for the nation.”
It would be complicated politically for the United States to endorse a political system not based on Washington’s idealized concept of democracy, yet it is difficult to deny the idea has its merits. Perhaps it is time for the US to recognize reality and give constitutional monarchy a chance.
James Nadeau works as a political affairs consultant in Brussels, Belgium. He has written articles for The Hill, The Kyiv Post and Real Clear World.