Libya has effectively been a failed state mired in an intractable civil war since the Libyan people have risen up against Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. Whatever else we may wish to say about Qaddafi, he was a unifying force in a country deeply fractured along ethnic, tribal and ideological lines. A brutal and malign unifying force, but a unifying force nonetheless.
The more one delves into the detail of the ongoing conflict in the country, the easier it is to lose hope that a stable and prosperous Libya might be possible at all. There are multiple power centers distributed all over the country, each with their own private militias, there are foreign fighters associated with ISIS and al-Qaeda still roaming the land, despite years of Western-backed efforts to stamp them out, there are at least two separate, semi-viable state apparatuses running in parallel and claiming authority over the entire territory, complete with their own central banks and currency – and, of course, there is international proxy power play, with Russia and the West backing different sides, while Arab states back different proxies on the ground. None of this suggests that anything other than endless conflict is possible.
And yet, a remarkable aspect of the ongoing mess is Libya is that it has revealed that there are things around which all Libyans can rally. The clearest example of this is the robust opposition to ISIS that all indigenous Libyan groups share. ISIS did establish itself around Sirte and a handful of other towns from 2014 onwards, and started claiming territory as it had done in Syria, but virtually all other major players ganged up on them and snuffed them out fairly promptly. Ironically, it was ISIS who first showed that Libyan unity might be possible.
Another remarkable aspect of the extremely fluid conflict is that very few groups have been consistently opposed to each other since 2011. Every group, militia or government institution has consistently pursued to maximise their own influence and power, but to that end they will at some point have worked with most other players on the map. There are few truly intractable and irreconcilable divisions. Instead, there are private interests, private feuds, private ambitions and diverging visions. And, most acutely, the lack of one player who can impose a monopoly on the use of violence in the territory in the way Qaddafi had done.
And lastly, there are, in fact, individuals who have a vision for a unified Libya as an inclusive state where all these fractious ambitions might coexist with each other in non-violent, and potentially even beneficial ways.
The idiosyncrasies of Libya
The person who stands out the most as a visionary future leader for a united, successful Libya at this moment in time is Dr Aref Ali Nayed, a Canada-educated Islamic scholar, engineer, philosopher and Libyan Ambassador to the UAE – who to date is the only individual who has announced his candidacy for president. Dr Ali Nayed has an impressive academic and educational background, but also business and philanthropic track record, both in the West, and in Libya where he returned to in 1990s. But most of all, what stands out is what he envisions for Libya.
Dr Ali Nayed sees a radically localist Libya, a Libya of cities and hinterlands each of which celebrate their own unique cultural and historical heritage, each of which fosters its own vision for itself, and all of whom would be supported by a central government to maintain open and mutually beneficial relations with each other and with other parts of the region and the world. The central government would be there to administer the peace and the shared public goods, such as the country’s vast oil reserves, but otherwise all the differences and idiosyncrasies of Libya would be embraced and fostered, rather than fought over.
This kind of vision has the merit that it can harken back to the Islamic Golden Age when well-managed diversity was a source of strength for what were then the world’s foremost empires, and in doing so it can appeal to Islamic traditionalists in the country. But of course, it is also a supremely practical approach, perhaps the only approach that can work, in a country of diverse, but fiercely independent and proud peoples and groups.
The difficult part will be for such a vision to emerge dominant over the egos and interests of the factional leaders who now divvy up Libya between them. Even so, the power of the factional leaders does not come from their egos, or their alignment to certain interests. It comes from the people who are willing to fight and die for them. And if those people are given better reasons to live – and let live –, in a Libya where they and their families can live in peace and prosper, the vision of Dr Ali Nayed for Libya may yet prevail.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim