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Opinion: Libya needs a new national narrative as much as security - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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Last week, Libyans went to the ballot box to elect a committee charged with the drafting of a new constitution. Voter turnout was around 45 percent, but threats and violence meant several voting stations remained closed, so a second round of elections will be necessary to allocate 13 of the 60 available seats. Libya—currently a place of chaos, distrust and intrigues—is in dire need of a unifying document to establish the foundations of a new state. But even more desperate is its need for a unifying national narrative.

Three years ago, an international coalition dreamed that a cursory military intervention would magically transform Libya into the Dubai of the Mediterranean. But in today’s reality, rebelling Libyan factions play dangerously polarizing games, often unchecked by the central authorities. Some international players try to help Prime Minister Ali Zeidan’s government, including training military and police forces that could force unwilling factions back in line, while others try to topple it. However, enforcing security alone won’t do the trick. Nor can destabilization be regarded as a strategy beneficial to anyone in the long term. Instead, Libya needs the help of the world’s best spin doctors, most competent PR managers and some excellent nation-branding experts. And, of course, it should draft a constitution all Libyans can subscribe to.

Libya is a local place and “Libyan” authorities in Tripoli are moribund without the support of the provinces, both eastern and southern. Libyan history shows that a strong national narrative, combined with an ingenious system of checks, balances, sticks and—especially— carrots can generate a situation in which local rivalries between cities or tribes are set aside. Only by actually and effectively convincing the periphery can central authorities in Tripoli get things done. Muammar Gaddafi might have been a dangerous madman in many ways, but he was Machiavellian in keeping such a system up and running until shortly before his downfall. His end came when he deviated from his long-standing strategy of divide and rule, squandering whatever political support he had by increasing repression in dissident areas to such a level it provoked a disastrous backlash. In addition, some years before his downfall he backtracked on his thoroughly fabricated national narrative: fearfully, he declared that the common enemy—the West—was his new best friend and the most esteemed partner in fighting “terrorism.” That did not go down well in the more conservative parts of Libya.

Zeidan’s government does not enjoy the support it needs from the Libyan hinterland, nor will it be able to gain it. The elections took place while the government was threatened with coups left and right. As well as security, Zeidan’s Libya lacks a smart strategic communications strategy to align the wishes of the periphery with an overall vision of Libya’s past, present and future. At the moment, the best strategy seems to be to start with a clean slate. Politically speaking, this would require Zeidan to step down before being forced out. A national government should then be formed and decentralization should be the point of departure for the to-be-drafted Constitution. With regard to policy, the new government should go after the low-hanging fruits to appease various localities. It should prevent groups from feeling marginalized to the point they want to pick up arms or call on external actors to help them forward their cause. This implies taking desires and demands from the periphery seriously.

Getting together a workable constitutional committee would be a major step forward in creating a new, inclusive Libya. The fact that the elections were marred by boycotts of specific ethnic and tribal groups shows that there still is a long way to go. To succeed, the “new Libya” needs a national spirit with which all different localities can be infused. The drafting of a new constitution should go hand in hand with the drafting of a new national narrative in which all currently competing narratives have a place—and their narrators at least a little piece of the pie.

Dr. Saskia van Genugten

Dr. Saskia van Genugten

Dr. Saskia van Genugten is a foreign affairs analyst based in the United Arab Emirates. Previously, she worked as an adviser at the Senate of the Netherlands. She holds a PhD from Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), where her research was focused on the history and present of British and Italian relations with Libya.

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