In September 1911, Italy invaded the last unoccupied North African provinces of the Ottoman Empire, sparking resistance that lasted 20 years, and ushering in a hundred years of ideologically driven, arrogant, and often vicious rule. It is fervently to be hoped that by the hundredth anniversary of the Italian invasion in September, this century of extravagant, vainglorious and deeply destructive politics will have drawn to a close.
It began with the Italian fascists, for whom imperialism was evidence of their belated Great Power status; they gave the province the name “Libya” — a term the ancient Greeks used for all of northern Africa — in an effort to evoke the glory of the ancient Roman Empire. Hundreds of thousands — perhaps as many as a million — Libyans died or fled their country during the brief Italian era, and those who survived were often forced off their land and into concentration camps, as the Italians attempted to establish settler colonies in the fertile areas along the coast.
The devastation did not end with the Italian defeat in World War II. After a brief interlude under a British and US-backed monarchy, in which the arrival of oil revenues in the late 1950s overwhelmed fragile state institutions, the fierce politics of the century returned with the regime that came to power in September 1969. Like the Italians, Qaddafi’s ambitions exceeded the territory he governed; for him, Libya was merely the epicentre of a world-wide revolution, and he, too, renamed the country to convey his aspirations, coining the word jamahiriyyah to express the radical novelty of his intentions. The Qaddafi regime, which seized land and property with almost as much impunity as the Italians, also never hesitated to use violence in the furtherance of its revolutionary goals, and many Libyan families have bitter memories of the last 40 years.
But it will not be easy to restore normalcy to a people brutalised by nearly a hundred years of ruthless and irresponsible rule. Although most Libyans continue to exhibit great generosity and good will, even after decades of abuse by their rulers, there is understandably very little trust of public institutions. Indeed, there is very little disciplined attachment to common economic interests and there are very few nationwide passions — even simple pleasures like football have been poisonously politicised.
Libyans are also understandably skittish about foreign entanglements and intrusions; they may need help to knit together stable institutions, built on mutual respect and confidence, but they are sceptical about the intentions of many of those who will offer to help, since they have too long been treated as a limitless funding source for hare-brained government schemes, crackpot private sector projects, and extraordinary garden-variety corruption.
So who might help, and what should they do? In the first instance, insofar as possible, advice should come from those who do not seek power or profit, which means not from foreign governments or international businesses and consulting companies. Fortunately, Libya does not need financial help, so its leaders can be very selective about where they seek advice and counsel. This means that there may be an opportunity, and perhaps an obligation, for international organisations, including the World Bank and UN bodies like UNESCO, UNICEF and the International Labour Organisation, to play an important role in Libya’s reconstruction. But perhaps more importantly, the non-official organisations of global civil society should be prepared to deploy their expertise. The hard-earned practical knowledge and pragmatic skill of the 70 former leaders of democratic countries represented in the Club of Madrid, which describes itself as seeking “to leverage the first-hand experience of its members to assist countries with critical elements of their democratic transition or consolidation,” could be put to good use, for example, as could the collective wisdom of organisations like Amnesty International, or Human Rights Watch.
There will be much work to do, from setting up a new police force to designing and implementing systems for judicial accountability, from convening a constitutional convention to re-establishing the Central Bank and reorganising the universities. But there is also much knowledge about these kinds of challenges in the world today, particularly in the global south where many countries have recent histories of conflict resolution and democratisation, and it could be put at the disposal of a new Libya. And if it were, we might just witness the beginning of a new, far more auspicious century for a country and people who certainly deserve better.
The writer is President of The American University in Cairo and an expert on Libya