Daniel Kawczynski is MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham.
Libya has not recently featured prominently on the government’s agenda – a perfectly understandable fact, given the priority the government has given to handling the more immediate issues of Brexit and fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
But two recent high level ministerial visits to Libya by Defence Secretary Ben Wallace and Minister for Middle East and North Africa James Cleverly, offer hope for increased British engagement with an area of the world where Britain can, and should, have an impact.
As the only non-French speaking country in the Maghreb, Libya is indeed a place where our post-Brexit Britain is uniquely poised to play a significant role in shaping the country’s future. Yet more importantly, it is in our interest to lend a helping hand to Libyans in shaping their future.
The opportunities range from helping Britain meet its energy consumption needs through oil imports, 10%-15% of which already come from North Africa; to stemming the flow of refugees to the shores of our European neighbours; to keeping Russia out of the Mediterranean, preventing it from placing anti-air and anti-ship missiles on Libya’s Northern coast in a move that would hamper NATO’s ability to defend Europe; to shutting down a human trafficking route that has been the source of untold suffering for thousands, including hundreds of Libyans, every year.
Beyond interests, Britain further has a moral responsibility to do something in Libya, having played such a key role in creating the dangerous vacuum that is swallowing Libya today.
As many will remember, the UK and its French allies played an integral role in spearheading the 2011 humanitarian intervention, undoubtedly stemming the tremendous humanitarian cost of what has been North Africa’s most protracted conflict of the millennium.
To our significant consternation, the same leadership was missing in 2015, when in an open letter to Prime Minster David Cameron I stated that, “We simply cannot stand by and let this humanitarian tragedy escalate day by day without any retaliation against ISIS and the other Islamist terrorist groups”. The decision was made not to not heed this call— despite the 2015 YouGov polling, which indicated that 59% would have supported British involvement in airstrikes on ISIS targets in Libya, more than double the 25% who would have opposed action.
Worse still, after conducting the airstrikes, Britain absconded from following through: 13 times more of our budget was allocated to conducting airstrikes than with the subsequent development of Libya. Despite this squandered opportunity and moral travesty, however, all is not yet lost.
The UK is still able to help Libya secure a democratic future. The government must be certain, however, that any role that it attempts to play in the war-torn country indeed has the potential to improve, rather than exacerbate the situation on the ground.
It is no secret that I have been a long-time supporter of the restoration of Libya’s 1951 constitution and British-style constitutional monarchy along with it. I remain convinced that the 1951 constitution, and the monarchy, can and should play a role in building Libya the future it deserves.
Libya has a presidential election scheduled for December 24, one which, according to Minister Cleverly, could provide Libyans with “a real opportunity to write the next chapter in the history of their country”. Yet Libya is racked by factionalism, like many other countries emerging from civil war.
Despite claims to the contrary, which were addressed in my 2015 New Statesman piece, tribalism is but one of many other fissures between Libya’s cities, regions, ideologies, and ethnic groups. These fissures are all the more evident today, and those divides have the potential to tear Libya apart not just physically, but as an idea.
To mend those divides, Libya needs a legitimate, durable, and widely-accepted constitution, all long before it needs an election. Because the task of drafting a constitution is so fraught, the international community has decided to kick the proverbial can down the road, and is instead rushing to have an election.
The absence of any foundational document means the election has little political or intellectual legitimacy in the eyes of Libyans; this is one reason— among others— that many Libya experts doubt that an election will go ahead at all. Voter turnout will doubtlessly be unprecedentedly low, and will fail to capture Libya’s ethnically, politically and geographically diverse range of interest groups.
Without a historic national vision, such as that of the 1951 constitution guiding us, foreign actors will continue to pursue their own interests at the expense of Libyans, plunging the country further into chaos on the heels of the discord which will surely emerge as we get closer to December.
Yet even if the election is a success, the constitutional questions at the heart of the Libyan conflict will be no closer to a resolution. Instead of starting from scratch then, what Libya needs is a starting point grounded in history and legitimacy. The 1951 constitution offers just that.
Working with a construct based on Libya’s own history, which in the recent past has proved its ability to generate national consensus, it has significantly greater potential to facilitate the emergence of much needed national institutions than any new concoction.
Among the many good ideas contained in the 1951 constitution are a non-politicised police force and army, capable of upholding the integrity of political decisions and representing the will of the people.
While the constitution would no doubt require an update to account for the social, cultural, and demographic changes that have taken place in the last 50 years, Libya would benefit from an idea that in the past worked and provided the country with a significant degree of political freedom until it was overturned by Colonel Gadhaffi’s undemocratic military coup in 1969.
The key lesson is that it is imperative to understand the intricate role that historical experience plays in building sustainable political futures. The tendency of the West, as tragically showcased in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been to resort to a “one size fits all” approach to democracy.
It is high time we learnt from these lessons of the more recent past, and that we in the West cease trying to export our domestic political animals to foreign climes. After all, democracy at its most basic level is, “government of, by and for the people”.
While the UK should embrace whatever democratic solution is chosen and embraced by the Libyan people, we should consider putting on the table the 1951 constitution, a constitutional document formulated by the UN with that same tailored-fit approach in mind.
If the UK seeks genuinely to contribute to a solution that has a chance of addressing the myriad of needs faced by Libyan society today— chief among those being unity— the 1951 option has a historic track record, and stands a solid chance of creating a real source of authority and trust in the future.
Those of us who have been following events in Libya for the past decade know that its current unity government is transient; it is not the first to try its hand at assuaging the country’s domestic tensions. Sadly, it is unlikely to be the last in the medium-term. There is however, no real reason to assume that this time things will end differently. This alone, if nothing else, is a reason to consider a fresh, yet historic take that the 1951 constitution would offer.
I have many times before made the argument for looking to the past as a way to shape the future. I will make it again here: There may be no more solid and sensible basis for a transition to peace available than the 1951 Constitution. While it is for Libyans to decide on the nature and text of the constitution that binds them, the UK can play a truly creative and constructive role by advocating for putting this solution on the table.
If, however, the UK is to play a serious and comprehensive role in shaping the future of Libya, it must look back before it looks forward. Lessons of the past are indeed integral for shaping our vision for the future.