Monarchy has been the understated fixture of the year. Yet its most relevant aspect has been its least understood – monarchy, when it is properly instituted, provides a divided society with the opportunity for renewal and revitalisation.
Modern sensibilities would have us believe that contemporary democratic institutions are the natural way of the world, a world that began no earlier than the early 20th century. History however, began far earlier than 1919. Indeed, the 1919 shift from the great monarchies to modern democratic representative government was rather rapid and jarring – far too rapid and jarring to break the hold of monarchy on the human mind.
The modern viewpoint does have some truth to it. Democracy is natural, is original insofar as initial political order likely was democratic. The loya jirga of the Pashtun, the kurultai of the Turko-Mongol, and the Thing of Germanic traditions are all reasonably similar – in each case, a reasonable number of individuals, albeit with a restricted franchise was allowed to participate in political affairs as equals. Monarchy, in turn, was the first evolution of political order. It marked the transition from small political units to organised pseudo-states capable of war and conquest. It is entirely unsurprising that, with the collapse of the Roman Empire, and with it the dissolution of the first bureaucratic state in world history at scale, Europe transitioned first to pseudo-democracies and tribal monarchies, and then to a patchwork feudal system centred upon the ownership of land as the source of sovereign power.
Kingdoms and empires did collapse in 1919 – Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, and in 1922 the Ottomans – but the political systems that emerged from each monarchy were dark reflections of their antecedents. Marxist-Leninism combined the absolute power of the Tsar with the mechanistic psychosis of the desk. The Stalinist state in particular was viper-like, striking out at the body politic to cower it in constant fear, generating a process of intense psychosis among the population. Hitlerite Germany, meanwhile, stemmed in part from the Kaiserreich’s transition to wartime dictatorship under Hindenburg and Ludendorff. Ataturk sought a conscious break from the Ottoman state by accelerating its centralisation of power, conducting a process of religious erasure that continued until this century. Moreover, if the geographical and temporal horizon is expanded, two other empires collapsed, the Chinese Qing Dynasty in 1911, and the Iranian Qajar Dynasty in 1921. Although Iran nominally remained imperial until the 1979 Revolution, Reza Khan, later Reza Shah Pahlavi, was a monarch akin to Louis-Napoleon, a military officer who seized power in a de facto coup. In each case, monarchical power was refracted through non-monarchical institutions, creating a hybrid with obvious excesses.
Libya’s monarchical past is unique by comparison. The modern Libyan state came into existed in 1951, some 25 years after the collapse of the European monarchies. But it never replicated the structures and mores of the Arab world’s other monarchies, either installed by Western powers or as functional tribal leaders. Rather, the Libyan state is part-and-parcel with the Senussi, the religious-political order that brought structure and social sanity to Libyan North Africa. Before their arrival, Libya was a hotbed for the slave trade, one of the Barbary Corsairs’ last outposts, and effectively ungoverned and therefore non-commercial. The Senussi, over a century, built up Libyan social and cultural institutions and defended this nascent political order, fighting the colonial powers that carved up Africa elsewhere.
The formalisation of Libyan monarchy in 1951, as a constitutional monarchy presiding over a parliamentary democracy, was therefore the institution of a Libyan state, the structures of which had existed for around a century.
Qaddafi’s coup in 1969 stole from Libyans their first opportunity to join the family of nations. The Libyan regime was a Westernised fad, an imagined reproduction of an Arab dictatorship, complete with the Colonel’s tribal dress and virgin guards. It was a performative reflection of Arab identity, one that connected well enough with Western academics that Joseph Nye, the Harvard-tenured Ur-Mandarin whose thesis on “soft power” still enamours the American centre-left, met Qaddafi twice before the 2011 Revolution.
Libya has a remarkable opportunity, one that is unlikely to come again. It can rejoin the community of nations and forge an authentic path for itself. This opportunity is possible only because of the leadership of Mohammed El Senussi, the Libyan Crown Prince. Engaged in Libyan politics since 1992 Prince Mohammed has more recently built connections with every armed group and political faction of note in Libya. He is active and practical, respected and credible. He can create a structure within which Libya’s fragile political system, scarred by vicious civil war and decades of Qaddafi’s savagery, can heal and rebuild.
Prince Mohammed’s 24 December Address, delivered on Libya’s Independence Day, is a Libyan and worldwide call to action. Libyans should, and almost certainly will, heed his remarks to accept political diversity and engage in a constructive reconstitution process. The international community must do so as well, applying the full weight of its economic and diplomatic tools behind an inclusive political process, framed by Mohammed El Senussi’s leadership. The risks of renewed civil war are simply too high to forego this opportunity.