Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Could a Monarch Heal Libya?

The country needs a unifying figure. Ahead of elections this year, it’s worth considering a constitutional monarchy.

By , the executive vice president of the Middle East and North Africa Forum.
A Libyan teacher waves the flag of Libya’s former monarchy, which was adopted by anti-Muammar al-Qaddafi forces, at the start of the school year in Tripoli on Sept. 18, 2011.
A Libyan teacher waves the flag of Libya’s former monarchy, which was adopted by anti-Muammar al-Qaddafi forces, at the start of the school year in Tripoli on Sept. 18, 2011. Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

Building an effective democratic solution for Libyans is no easy task. Over the course of a decade, the Libyan people toppled an authoritarian regime, became entangled in a brutal civil war, and endured what subsequently evolved into a proxy war among multiple foreign powers seeking to promote their own national interests.

Post-authoritarian, post-conflict, and post-intervention periods are always difficult to navigate, let alone when they come all at once. Such legacies foster mistrust and discord, risking sudden reversals back to instability. Of course, with an estimated 20,000 foreign troops still in Libya, decisively ending the proxy war is a goal yet to be attained. It is, however, worth considering the institutions and political mechanisms that could encourage society’s reunification and the country’s economic reconstruction, especially with a new draft constitution due before elections are meant to be held at the end of this year.

Building an effective democratic solution for Libyans is no easy task. Over the course of a decade, the Libyan people toppled an authoritarian regime, became entangled in a brutal civil war, and endured what subsequently evolved into a proxy war among multiple foreign powers seeking to promote their own national interests.

Post-authoritarian, post-conflict, and post-intervention periods are always difficult to navigate, let alone when they come all at once. Such legacies foster mistrust and discord, risking sudden reversals back to instability. Of course, with an estimated 20,000 foreign troops still in Libya, decisively ending the proxy war is a goal yet to be attained. It is, however, worth considering the institutions and political mechanisms that could encourage society’s reunification and the country’s economic reconstruction, especially with a new draft constitution due before elections are meant to be held at the end of this year.

Although few citizens alive today can recall it, there was a time before the fall of Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011, when Libyans were united. The country’s 1951 constitution mixed democratic practices with a figurehead capable of ensuring the interests of Libya’s diverse citizenry. Notwithstanding its colonial influences, inefficacies in redistributing wealth, and limitations on some democratic processes (the monarch had overbearing power over the lower house of parliament), that era’s constitutional monarchy at least provided a powerful answer to many of the challenges the country is witnessing today.

Libyans have not become more divided with time; rather, the glue that held them together was dissolved by a man who co-opted the nation for his own interests and thrived on playing those he perceived as enemies against one another. The time has come to navigate beyond the damage Qaddafi wrought and shape a real future for Libya as a unified nation.


Although they come in all shapes and sizes in their ideological convictions and the extent of their power, monarchies are meant to bring stability. In constitutional systems, of course, they are committed to upholding the rule of law and the interests of citizens without any form of exclusivity over lawmaking or any executive duties, such as how monarchs function in Sweden, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and Japan. And looking at the role constitutional monarchies play outside stable Western democracies, it is clear they can have positive effects even in more fractured societies.

It is no coincidence that as Arab Spring protests swept the region in 2011, those countries with a strong tradition of monarchy, such as the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, remained stable. Indeed, none fell, and only Bahrain faced regime-challenging protests. These monarchies are relative anchors of stability that are more capable of responding to economic, social, and political factors than many of their neighbors.

As opposed to oil-wealthy monarchies of the Persian Gulf that mitigated domestic unrest by deploying multibillion-dollar development packages—as well as security forces—the poorer kingdom of Jordan relied on closer consultation with its citizens and offered modest monetary concessions, constitutional changes, and new elections. EU polling published in 2020 revealed that around 74 percent of Jordanians viewed their life as generally good.

With its recent history of fragmentation and continued divisions that cut across the fabric of society, Libya is in urgent need of such a symbolic leading figure. A monarch’s separation from party politics would ensure Libya’s identity as one nation—divided as it is by the different economic interests of the country’s primary regions, the separate identities of its tribes, and the bad blood that has resulted from a decade of war—is carried across different political administrations and parliamentary terms.

Unity under one flag, in turn, could be vital for allowing a new democratic system to be consolidated. It often takes years if not decades for the democratic participation of citizens and consensus-seeking attitudes among elected officials to take root. But a monarch could help ensure a system will persist long enough for that to happen and that participating in it, rather than toppling it, would be the wisest choice. And although exempt from partisan issues, the monarch could play a crucial role in disseminating ideas of peace, compromise, inclusion, and trust.

By offering a means of arbitration, moreover, a constitutional monarch could prevent fresh democratic systems from backsliding and creating what French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville so aptly defined as a “tyranny of the majority” that would actively disregard certain minority groups. If formulated correctly, constitutional monarchs could play the same role in curbing governments or individual executive leaders who would otherwise trample the human and political rights of individuals or attempt to degrade the constitutional arrangements that guarantee them.

A constitutional monarch would benefit more than just domestic politics. In post-conflict societies, economic development is as important as political progress. And here, a constitutional monarch could prioritize the protection of the fundamental laws necessary for improving Libya’s economic health.

Soon, investment from abroad could start flowing back in as the country’s stability is assured. (Indeed, this process already started in its most fleeting moments of stability, which encouraged such investments in Libya’s economy over the past 10 years.) That would, in turn, boost overall economic growth and lead to a perceivable increase in living standards—contributing once more to overall democratic stability.


Such a formula can only take root in countries with some tradition of monarchy and a legitimate ruling dynasty. Libya has both. With the 1951 constitution’s model—which Qaddafi toppled by tapping into anti-Western sentiment, particularly anger about foreign companies’ stake in Libya’s lucrative oil sector—and the exiled al-Senussi family, Libya has a viable option capable of reestablishing the country as a stable and prosperous regional leader.

For many Libyans, the reintroduction of democratic practices since 2012 is a continuation of reforms set in motion by King Idris. Under Idris, the constitution divided the parliament into a Senate and a House of Representatives and guaranteed the protection of personal and political freedoms. Even more important than institutional provisions, however, was the king’s broad acceptability among many of the country’s factions.

In recent years, the Return of Constitutional Legitimacy Movement has emerged as the most prominent grassroots organization in Libya propagating the potential benefits of the 1951 constitution and its amendments to stabilize the country. Although no reliable opinion polls have been published about support for restoring a monarchy among Libyans, generally low satisfaction rates with the work of the Government of National Accord and the House of Representatives speaks of Libyans’ desire for alternative thinking.

Still, if the past decade of chaos in Libya has taught the world anything, it is that solutions imposed by foreign entities simply don’t work. This has been underscored by a decade of failures in the Middle East, most prominently in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Libya does have a model that, in the past, provided domestic stability and facilitated economic prosperity. With the next general election scheduled for Dec. 24, reinvigorating discussions about the benefits of a constitutional monarchy is timely. Such a system could be a recipe for a more successful democratic future in Libya.

Patrik Kurath is the executive vice president of the Middle East and North Africa Forum, a think tank based at the University of Cambridge.

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