Libya is still an ungovernable mess in its 8th year since the removal of Muammar Gaddafi. The fragmented, ever-fluid civil war is no closer to resolution now than at any other time since 2011, and Libya remains a failed state despite all the competing state institutions the different players are trying to build in parallel. Add to this mix Libya’s long-standing history of politicised Islam, and you seemingly have the perfect soil for a cancer like ISIS to fester and thrive.
Yet, for all their inability to agree about much else, Libyans do deserve credit for the way they have handled the ISIS threat. Libya became the secondary territorial claim of ISIS back in 2014, just after the heartland of eastern Syria and north-western Iraq. The response was swift. All other factions agreed that ISIS needed to be rooted out of Libya, and this was achieved relatively quickly and thoroughly – within just a couple of years. There remain, of course, fighters associated with ISIS scattered across the country’s sparsely populated hinterlands, but today there is little trace of an ISIS ‘territory’ in Libya, let alone a ‘state’.
What remain present, however, are the fertile soil of a broken country, the flowing waters of political and armed Islam, and those scattered seeds of ISIS fighters in the hinterlands. Jihadism, whether bearing the ISIS logo or not, remains one of the most immediate threats radiating out of Libya.
The only person who has declared his candidacy for the presidency of the UN-backed Tripoli claimant state has made the elimination of ISIS a central objective of his leadership. Dr Aref Ali Nayed – a Canada-educated Islamic scholar, philosopher and Libyan Ambassador to the UAE is being touted by analysts as the best hope that Libya may yet be healed and emerge as a peaceful and prosperous country.
Yet, for all their inability to agree about much else, Libyans do deserve credit for the way they have handled the ISIS threat. Libya became the secondary territorial claim of ISIS back in 2014, just after the heartland of eastern Syria and north-western Iraq. The response was swift. All other factions agreed that ISIS needed to be rooted out of Libya, and this was achieved relatively quickly and thoroughly – within just a couple of years.Dr Azeem Ibrahim
And it seems that Dr Ali Nayed has the profile and the experience that a troubled country like Libya rarely dares dream for in a potential leader. He is deeply rooted both in civil society and in democratic politics in Libya, has held high office despite all odds, and has achieved this without cultivating dubious connections to Islamist militias – a genuinely impressive feat, given the current state of Libyan politics.
His professional background is in academia, business, philanthropy, and community organization. A prefect combination for a political leader anywhere, let alone in a state with such acute need of proper leadership. Specific to Libya, however, is that his academic background is in Islamic theology. In a country dominated by Islamist militias, where tribal politics and personal rivalries are often couched in an Islamic veneer, Dr Ali Nayed is a man who can school any preacher or militia leader in the finer points of Islam.
The candidate also brings with him a vision of how the fractious and intensely competitive Libyans can channel their energies towards peacefully building a vibrant and successful country together, rather than collectively tear it apart – and more importantly, he brings with him a detailed plan on how he will pursue that vision.
Dr Ali Nayed takes an inclusive view of localist Libyan politics, and all of its idiosyncrasies, and an inclusive view of Islam and divergent theological views and debates. He takes democracy to mean that all this diversity must be given expression – all constituent traditions and cultures of Libya must have a voice, and must have the autonomy to express themselves politically at the local level. But none must have the power to overimpose itself upon the others, or on the national conversation. The purposes and mandate of the central government will be uphold the peace between all these traditions and all the locales, and enable a discourse of negotiation for mutual benefit for all Libyans of all persuasions.
If there is a vision of politics that can Libya and Libyans in a peaceful manner this is it. And this is the manner of politics which Libya must pursue. No party in the Libyan civil war is strong enough to impose the peace. The path forward towards a peaceful and united Libya cannot, in practice, be but one of reconciliation and cooperation.
If this is achieved, the soil will be rendered barren for violent Islamism. And led by an Islamic scholar with the pedigree and credentials of Dr Aly Nayed, Libya will also stem the waters of politicised Islam which would feed that soil. All that would remain would be those scattered seeds. But Dr Ali Nayed has also made it a top priority to physically remove all remnant traces of ISIS from the country – a task which will be much easier when Libyans stop fighting each other and turn their attention to these corrupting foreign influences.
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