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Libyan thoughts on the way to Rome


By: Mohamed Mufti*

Like any other crisis, the Libyan conflict keeps escalating or splintering, depending on your viewpoint. New ideas, new

Muhamed Mufti
Muhamed Mufti

decisions, new entities and more active groups keepbudding and branching. But that does not necessarily mean that the process will be fruitful.

As things are, the Libyan reconciliation process sponsored by the United Nations Secretariat is continuing, after being tripped by the ignominious departure of envoy Signor Leon, who nevertheless managed to work out a Political Accord at least on paper. The process is now being resuscitated by the new envoy Herr Martin Kobler, who is showing great energy and has visited all concerned.

Scheming in Tunis

While nothing new or substantial was being achieved or revealed, something happened in Tunis on Saturday, 5thDecember, something of fictional dimensions. A few members of the Tobruk elected parliament (HoR) and the Tripoli General National Congress met in a secluded hotel room. They were not representatives or empowered delegations. Neither of the two chambers is strictly legitimate or has any real power, anyway.

The meeting ended with a resounding announcement adopting the Constitution of the Libyan Kingdom of 1963. A surprise declaration which everybody has rejected. This move raises many mind-boggling questions despite the possible good intentions of its promoters. It has, at a stroke, bypassed the UN sponsored Political Accord and the proposed National Unity Government backed by the international community. The Declaration has also done away with the Constitutional Assembly which has been endeavouring to draft a Constitution over the last year with little success. The Tunis Understanding has also trampled over a compromise proposal suggested by parliamentarians from Fezzan, the southern region of Libya.

Just a spark

A brilliant move, one may think, resolving several issues at once. And it probably expresses the deeper wishes of most Libyans. The return to the kingdom constitution is being prescribed by many almost as a panacea for all Libya’s ills. But in the present Libyan context, Restoration is rather absurd because it is not feasible as it is unacceptable to the armed militias who hold the real power in a chaotic political terrain.

The call for the restoration of the monarchy or its Constitution in Libya is not new either. A Mr Ben Ghalboon, who lives in the UK, has been a vociferous Royalist for over half a century. A movement with similar goals is led by Dr Mohamed Abdul Aziz a former foreign minister.

Soul searching

The Tunis deal may well be seen as the offspring of Libyan psyche, which unfortunately has been largely ignored by most. Not by my Maltese friend, Pawlu, who lived and worked in Benghazi for a quarter of a century. He once remarked that the most insoluble problem there could be resolved promptly after a late night sharing spicy macaroni. Sharing food with anybody does reinforce trust, as the great anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss has detailed in his book The Raw and the Cooked. With Libyans, food sharing dispels all suspicions and hesitations. Their traditional advice instructs: ‘Never to forget the shared bread, water and salt’. That is the key to harmony and loyalty. A basic moral concept in Libyan culture, which at its most basic is fraught with solitude and perils of any large desert environment.

The Tunis Understanding was an inspiration born of a typical Libyan sentimental spell. But of course, interests come first in politics as in any other human endeavour. Perhaps those meeting at the Ramada Hotel wanted to leave their mark on history.

But the call has not come out of the blue. The Libyans are not only sentimental but are really exhausted to the verge of weeping, by the ongoing irrational civil wars. There is certainly a wave of nostalgia stirring in every Libyan mind reflecting a desire to escape the current quagmire of killings, devastation, the displacement of people, shortages and inflation. A total paralysis of all aspects of normal social life, hence the yearning for a saviour.

Libya half a century ago

Over half a century ago, in 1954, William Lewis and Robert Gordon wrote an article entitled “Libya After Two Years of Independence” in The Middle East Journal, to which a friend; Mr Zmirly, recently drew my attention.  The writers noted at the time that Libya was “a nation lacking in political cohesion,” adding that “the spectacle of a Libyan urban elite attempting to fashion the instruments and bonds of nationhood seems remote”. Such statements may apply to Libya today, although for different reasons, I may add.

At that time, the reasons were poverty, lack of modern communications and the limitations of a rural society; the extended family, the clan, the village, the tribe, which prevented “the state or its subdivisions, from becoming the touchstones of the community”.

At present, half a century later, the divisive ideologies and the freely available weapons, as well as external regional interests, are the main disruptive factors. Autonomous armed groups control the suburbs of cities down to isolated hamlets. Volatile militias have closed oil fields and ports, airports, harbours, banks, schools and universities. Some have turned to criminal activities.

These armed groups probably constitute no more than two per cent of the population. Nevertheless, in a country in which most inhabitants are unorganized, even a small group tends to carry weight far beyond its number.

Libyans, the majority of Libyans, can only be regarded as hostages who deserve sympathy and help.

Questions for Rome

A focus of today’s meeting of world powers in Rome, seems to be the initiation of the Libyan National Unity Government, which will seek the help of the international community. But who will persuade the armed militias to allow it to establish itself or set up shop in the capital Tripoli? And will the civil war raging in Benghazi, be brought to an end? What about the entrenched extremists in Sirte and their plans to take over the oil-rich womb of Libya? Will there be serious and effective answers to all these vexing problems?  In short, will the world powers finish what they started in 2011? Thus applying the American Pottery Barn rule which says: “if you break it, you fix it”!

*A Libyan Writer