About nine years ago, the Libyan revolution was in full swing. Back then, on the pages of Asharq Al-Awsat, I warned against Libya slipping towards extremism and fragmentation, if political parties did not make progress on the issue of national unity. However, those competing forces did not initiate much needed reconciliation, leading the country to become overwhelmed by extremism and suffering ever since from fragmentation.
Many do not know that Libya was once united, even before Germany and the United States. It was united in the 18th century, long before Italy's consulates of Tuscany and Genoa existed in Tripoli, which served as the capital of a united state stretching 2000 km on the shores of the Mediterranean.Since ancient history, eastern, western and southwestern Libya each constituted a strategic depth for the other, although they were at times separated. In 74 CE, east and west Cyrenaica were
Roman territories. In the year 202, the Roman emperor Septimius Severus realized the strategic importance of southwestern Libya (the province of Fezzan), taking it back and restoring it to northern Libya.
In recent history, Ahmed Pasha al-Qurmenli, the founder of the Quranili State of Libya in 1711, established the strategic integration of the country's territories. When he responded to the request of the Sheikh of the Obaydah tribe to settle new people from Tripoli in Cyrenaica, he brought tribes from the west around the year 1720 to settle in the city of Derna. This approach emphasized the unity of the country's demographics, with this wave of migration becoming known as the "abstraction."
This was not the first or last time that migration took place between two territories. Urban migration to Durna was preceded by the migrations of nomadic tribes from the west, some of which became the most powerful tribes in Berg. Time has proved Ahmed Pasha's wisdom in his strategic integration of the two parts of the country.
Almost a century after the "abstraction'', when Western powers blocked commercial traffic in the port of Tripoli, commercial activity shifted to the port of Benghazi in Cyrenaica, about a thousand kilometers to the east. This would not have been possible without the unity generated between east and west by Ahmed Pasha's "abstraction".
The evidence of Libyan national unity is not limited to waves of migration between west and east but is supported by the Arab-Amazigh demographic mix. Unfortunately, Libya's anthropological studies have not been as comprehensive as those of its history and geography. Nevertheless, indicators of profound unity permeate its social and cultural structure from Cyrenaica to Tripoli to Fazan. Strangely, the names of many tribes begin with the word "ayt," which is not the acronym for "family," as some might think. Rather, this is a prefix for the names of many Amazigh families. In contrast, the names of many tribes in Tripoli and Fazan are preceded by the Arabic word "children." Anthropology has shown the origins of many of these tribes to be Amazigh, many of whom lost their identity due to the country's colonization.
Interestingly, the United States was one of the first colonizers to make its way to Libya on one of its first naval adventures away from American shores, when it attacked the Qarmanli state in Derna in the far east of Libya in 1805. This campaign’s memory is eternalized in the anthem of the US Marine Corp, commemorating battles fought, “From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli.”
After the collapse of the Qaramanlic state, central Ottoman rule returned to Libya in 1835. Still, the country's identity persevered, as it did throughout the Italian occupation from 1911 until the defeat of Italy in World War II. Fazan came under French control, Cyrenaica and Tripoli came under British administration, although Britain functionally ran the two territories under separate administrations. Many mistakenly believe that Idris Senussi, who became king of the country in 1951, assumed the leadership mantle and became the symbol of national unity. Many forget that his appointment actually came 30 years earlier in the 1920 Gharyan Conference, with the pledging of allegiance of Eastern leaders taking place at the Cyrenaica headquarters in Ajdabiya in November 1922.
We not too long ago saw a television series titled "The Two Leaders," on Suleiman Al-Baroni and Bashir Al-Saadaw, both famous leaders from the west. We are used to seeing such programs on our historical leaders and bow in homage to these great men. Yet, we still do not understand why there is little material which commemorates one of our most outstanding figures of national unity, Idris Al-Senussi.
Our leaders in Gharyan in 1922 realized something that many today have conveniently forgotten. The Senussi family is integral for national unity as it rises above Libya's regional and tribal affiliations. Divisions in our country mean that any leader from Tripoli will naturally be supported by tribal or regional leaders from Tripoli itself, and leaders from Misratawill find similar support among their compatriots. Unique about the Senussi brand is that it is not a regional or tribal identity, but rather a national identity given its reformist message based on action in the interests of all Libyans, not factionalism.
Libyan history as we know it would not have existed, unified and independent, had it not been for Idris Al-Senussi and the national and international consensus he generated. East and west have integrated and exchanged roles. Tripoli led the country in theQarmani era, while Cyrenaica led the period of the Senussi reform culminating in the period of independence.
Cyrenaica first became independent in 1949. However, our founding fathers realized that half of the country would not survive without the other half in a highly polarized region. Necessitating Libya to become independent under the leadership of Cyrenaica's prince, Idris Al-Senussi, who became king of the country, first as a federation under the 1951 constitution, and later under the federation abolished in 1963.
The regime which would depose the Senussi family led by Muammar Ghadaffi tore our country apart at the seams. Cyrenaica and its people sensed a bitterness of deprivation and exclusion more than others in that era. That was the modus operandi of the regime, divide and conquer. What we are tasked with at this juncture, ten years after the regime's fall, is delicately putting our country back together again. But calls to return to federalism at the current time dismiss the fact that federalism is a constitutional order that can only be restored after a constitutional referendum has abolished it. Returning to such federalism may also lead to the risk of our country finding itself in a state of complete separation. The division of governments and parliament is now at the worst we have seen in years.
These divisions may benefit some due to their personal or narrow regional material interests. Pursuing avenues to divide our country further is a disservice to our people and a disgrace to our founding fathers. If a return to federalism is indeed the people's desire, then so be it, but how would such an endeavor take place under such challenging circumstances?
Our Constitution of Independence of 1951 is what we must fight to return to under the leadership of a constitutional monarchy. The Libyan people did not seek to abolish it, and as such, it is their right to demand to have it restored. International attempts at providing us with a new document have very clearly failed. Instead, we need political consensus among those from the competing parts of our country who care about our future. This will bring the country out of its current constitutional vacuum and alleviate the imminent dangers facing us today.
When a ship is dismantled on the shore, some rush to take advantage of the wreckage to build boats for themselves. Others seek to reconstruct the broken ship for the good of the many, even if the waves pose challenges and run the risk of them drowning. These people understand that the masses need the ship to survive. And more important than their independent survival is that of the many. We must do everything in our power to strengthen and support those who hold the interests of our glorious nation in their hearts.
*Dr. Abdul Rahman Habil was Libyan Minister of Culture and Civil Society. He is a board member of the Central Bank of Libya and a practicing lawyer. Dr. Habil holds a PhD in law from the University of Indiana and was an Assistant Professor of Law at the University of Benghazi.