Two Versions of the Past Battle for Libya’s Future

The country's present upheaval has led to romanticization of the eras of both the monarchy and Gadhafi’s rule

Two Versions of the Past Battle for Libya’s Future
Libya’s late leader Moammar Gadhafi attends celebrations in the eastern city of al-Bayda to mark the 37th anniversary of the military coup he led in 1969 that overthrew the country’s monarchy. (Mahmud Turkia/AFP via Getty Images)

“Days after Gadhafi’s coup, people went out to the streets to show their support for the new regime. Libyans chanted for the Arab union, for new leaders and for change; but most of all they chanted against King Idris; they said, ‘Iblis wa la Idris’ (Rather the devil himself than Idris). The king, then in his Egyptian exile, raised his hands and said, ‘Amen.’ Allah gave them what they wished for.”

I have heard this story many times since the armed revolt of February 2011 against Libya’s late ruler, Col. Moammar Gadhafi. A Google search for “Iblis wa la Idris” (in Arabic) turns up Libyan and Arab writers using this story to justify what happened to the Libyan people over the past 50 years. It is not important here to fact-check the historical details but to consider the supposed moral of the story: At first, the Libyan people were in favor of change when Gadhafi’s al-Fateh Revolution toppled the young Kingdom of Libya and its old monarch, King Idris. Documentaries and archives from that time show people from all walks of life cheering for what they saw as a new pan-Arab republic. Yet, in the immediate post-Gadhafi era, this story expressed a sense of nostalgia for the old kingdom, which lasted from 1951 until 1969, and portrayed Idris as a “marabout,” meaning a figure who is close to God, an absolute good, while simultaneously portraying the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (a term coined by Gadhafi, usually translated as “state of the masses”) that came afterward as undesirable. Gadhafi, as its leader, was the devil incarnate.

When news of Gadhafi’s death broke in October 2011, Libyans from across the country took to the streets to celebrate the end of his 42-year rule, cheering that they would rather be ruled by the devil himself than by Gadhafi. I, for one, was simultaneously relieved by his overthrow and disgusted by the way he died. Our supposed heroes had done something extremely dark to the colonel.

Over the years, I rarely experienced nostalgia for our Jamahiriya. Living through an eight-year war meant experiencing my share of loss and doubts about the future. I lived through dark summer nights with no electricity, when the bombs were the only sound I could hear. I always say that I do not regret being a part of the Libyan revolution, but this past summer I started feeling a longing for the “good old days” of the colonel, when the only horrible thing my peers and I could remember about him was his behavior during the bloodshed of the 2011 revolution. I have seen much darker days in the last 10 years than during the 42 years of his rule.

Every day, I tell myself that my nostalgia is justified. I am acutely aware of everything that Gadhafi did to the Libyan people during his 42-year dictatorship: public hangings, the perpetual revolutionary state of the country that gave no time for political stability, the deterioration of the quality of life and the lies that Libya in his time was a “paradise” on earth. However, I will not argue here why I think the days of Gadhafi were better than the past 10 years. Instead, I will share that I have become acutely aware of the effects of nostalgia, the ways in which it manifests for those whose present is darker than they can comprehend, who fear that the future could be darker than they can possibly imagine. Only then do people retreat to the past.

Even though the rebels raised the flag of the Kingdom of Libya to protest against Gadhafi in 2011, a clear homage to the “good old days” of Idris, there were never any serious calls to restore the kingdom. Instead, relatives of politicians who worked in the monarchy and pro-Feb. 17 influencers and media pundits turned to nostalgia to share pictures, videos and stories about the state that Gadhafi toppled, the goal being to “shed light” on the damage he did to the country and enforce the image that Gadhafi’s era was anything but good for Libya. For them, it was a utopian state: The Libyans in that kingdom, so it was said, are not the same Libyans who inhabit Libya today. It is as if Gadhafi erased them from the face of the earth and created his own devilish creatures instead.

Ten years later, another nostalgia is capturing people’s imaginations, this time for the colonel’s heaven on earth, as Libyans reshape their memories to fit their current reality. Some who once believed Gadhafi was the devil now remember him as a martyr, a status without equal in Islamic thinking. Some even named him a marabout, just like Idris. Others believe he is still alive, hidden somewhere like a long-awaited “mehdi” (savior), a theological figure famous across Islamic sects. In their minds, he is assembling his forces to save Libya from its downfall.

Meanwhile, depending on whether one is a fan of Idris’ Kingdom of Libya or Gadhafi’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, there are two vastly different potential saviors. One is living in the United Kingdom, while the other is somewhere in the Fezzan region of southern Libya. The first is Crown Prince Mohammed al-Rida El-Senussi, the grandnephew of Idris and, at least according to his supporters, the legitimate heir to the Senussi crown. The other is Saif al-Islam Moammar Gadhafi, the second son of the colonel and the most influential of all his sons in the last 10 years of his Jamahiriya. Both are fighting (perhaps without even realizing it) for the past of their country, all the while playing on the nostalgia of their people. “There is no future in Libya but to go back,” they chant. Ashraf Boudouara, chair of “The National Conference for the Return of the Constitutional Monarchy” and a strong supporter of the crown prince, went as far as to say that Libya should travel “back to the future,” as though the Libyan monarch were Marty McFly, traveling through time in order to save the present day.

Although I am a fan of the film “Back to the Future,” I am wary of the actual future. I prefer history and find that examining our history, even when it is often misrepresented, has tremendous potential to shine light on our present.

For instance, during the summer of 2015, I got into the habit of walking around downtown Tripoli with friends, even though there was a war going on. One day, I saw a new mural painted on one of the walls of the buildings showing the Senussi royal emblem, with the Senussi crown painted clearly to show support for the right of the crown prince and his connection to Idris, with “Restoring the monarchy is the solution for Libya” written over it. I started seeing the same mural everywhere in the city, but it was not until one year later that Tripoli held a conference to discuss restoring the monarchy’s constitution. It was the first serious event to call for the return of the monarchy and the beginning of a series of annual conferences where royalists meet and renew their oath to the crown prince and discuss what restoring the monarchy would look like in practice.

For them, the 1951 constitution (edited in 1963 to change Libya from a federal monarchy to a centralized monarchy) is the solution to the country’s crisis. They argue that the constitutional draft written by an assembly elected in 2014 and last edited in 2017 would never get to a referendum because of the country’s political crises, while the 1951 constitution had already been approved by the forefathers of the Libyan people and therefore is already legitimate. If they were to follow this vision, the Libyan monarchy would be a constitutional one, and the monarch would serve as a symbolic figure, more like the British king than the monarchies in other parts of North Africa and the Middle East. As such, the monarch would represent Libyan unity, the way that Idris once did. Now, royalists argue that the crown prince could play the same role, especially since he has had no hand in the ongoing conflict.

It is a beautiful argument, filled with nostalgia. Libya needs unity, now more than ever. The country is vast, the population scattered and the divide is real, whether it is in the folklore stories we share with our children or the jokes we tell our friends. It is shaping our politics and armed demonstrations. Many Libyans feel their country is slipping away from them and turn to history to console themselves that there was a time when the country was not divided. But the fact is that it was always this way, both before and during the Kingdom of Libya.

One key example of this is World War II, when Libyans who wanted to get rid of Italian fascist rule were torn over how they should align themselves. Some argued that aligning with the Axis would help them win their independence from Italy as a “favor,” while others, particularly those living in exile in Egypt, argued that the Allies had a better chance of winning the war and wanted to fight alongside the British. Eventually, the latter won.

When the British helped eradicate Italy’s fascist rule over Libya in 1943, the local armies who fought alongside them were named the “El-Senussi Army,” later known as the Libyan Liberation Army, and were led by Sayyed Idris El-Senussi (the future monarch’s official religious name at the time), who was living in exile in Egypt. Idris was the head of the Senussi family, a Sufi sect prominent in both eastern and southern Libya, with minimal presence in the western part of the country.

Thus began the political battle for independence. After Idris was named Emir Idris in 1949, he liberated the eastern region of Barqa (known in English as Cyrenaica) from the British, renaming it the “Emirate of Barqa.” This allowed him to reinforce his reputation as a “liberator of Libya,” while motivating his supporters to call him the “King of all Libya.” If anyone wished for a unified Libya, there were influential Libyan figures in the western part of the country who supported that vision, though they preferred a republic to a monarchy. Many disliked Idris and felt he had no claim to the western region of Tripolitania, since his sect had no real presence in the region. Politically speaking, however, they were in a weak position. Since Italy wanted to get hold of Tripolitania, and Tripolitanians themselves dreaded the idea of returning to fascist rule, they were receptive to the idea of a Libyan king. Thus, the emir was crowned king and seen as the symbol of unification in Libya.

Could Mohammed today enjoy the same fate as his great-uncle? It is a very different political reality for the crown prince now. For one, there is no longer an Italian fascist presence in Libya. True, foreign powers are involved in the conflict, including Turkey, Russian mercenaries and certain Arab states allegedly supporting different sides, but this is not the same as the ruthless, racist colonial power that Libyans remember for crushing every voice of resistance. Now, the problem is the Libyan warlords themselves, who have turned their backs on the Libyan people and divided the country. The crown prince does not have a single soldier on his side.

Another problem is the symbolism of the Senussi dynasty itself. Those who once followed Idris were not just his political allies, they were his disciples. During the 19th century, the Senussi family managed to forge alliances with Libyan tribes through the power of religion, using Sufism to build and cement loyalty and influence. While one might think this legacy could put the crown prince at an advantage, the reality could not be more different.

The systematic dismantling of the Senussi legacy started in 1984, one year after Idris’ death and 15 years after Gadhafi overthrew the monarch and established his republic. Gadhafi loyalists destroyed the mosque and shrine of Imam Mohammed Ali El-Senussi (the founding father of the Senussi dynasty) and the headquarters of the Senussi sect in the eastern town of al-Jaghbub. Gadhafi placed Crown Prince al-Hassan El-Senussi (then first heir to the throne) and his family, including Mohammed, under house arrest until 1977, stripping al-Hassan of the right to lead the prayer in Tripoli the year after. After this, the Senussi sect went into decline, and another Sunni sect emerged in Libya: the Salafists.

Salafist groups rose to power in 2011, after a long period of propaganda by extremists that aimed to show Arab people, including Libyans, the “real” Sunni Islam. Using the media, Salafists sought to destroy support for Sufism and gain more followers. Since the beginning of the revolution, when they started to form armed militias in the country, they have managed to destroy a number of Sufi shrines and mosques across the country. When Gen. Khalifa Haftar later gained power in the east, he chose the Salafists for allies over their old enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood. Since then, this destruction has reached a fever pitch and, now, Salafism has replaced Sufism as the most popular Sunni sect in Libya. This makes it harder for Mohammed to form religious alliances, particularly in the east, where Haftar is aligned with one of the most influential Salafist militia groups and uses that to his favor.

If the armed groups and contesting parties in the country allowed a national referendum to decide whether to restore the monarchy, they would likely find that most of the country — especially the younger generation — no longer has any real connection with the monarchy, largely because of Gadhafi. The crown prince might also be seen as a puppet monarch of the West, given his connections in the U.K. Most Libyans believe that the West is the true reason Libya is suffering. Since the crown prince and his supporters rely so heavily on the memory of Idris — so much so that some of his supporters are producing a historical drama TV show named “King Idris,” which is set to air next Ramadan — he is unlikely to garner the support of those who do not share this nostalgia.

Another major obstacle for the crown prince is the reemergence of Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, who has a stronger claim on a more recent nostalgia: that which pines for a return to Gadhafi’s rule. Unlike the crown prince, Saif fits the profile of the Islamic mehdi. He was jailed and hidden for the past 10 years and lost both his father and two of his brothers to the war, as well as three fingers. At the start of the revolution, in a now-infamous speech, he notoriously prophesied everything that is now happening in the country, saying Libya would descend into civil war that would last years, that the oil would be stolen, the price of bread would go up and it would take 50 years to regain the country.

Significantly, Saif also holds a place in the memory of younger generations. I myself remember his nationwide reform project from 2010, “Libya al-Ghad” (Tomorrow’s Libya). It was a time of apparent promise for Libya, when employment in the oil sector was the dream of younger Libyans, a time of rebuilding the country after decades of poor infrastructure and a time for opportunity and openness to the world. That memory of a golden era, complete with a small force on the ground that backs him, could be his ticket back to power, if he manages to manipulate the current divide in the country in his favor.

Many made fun of Saif’s interview with The New York Times in July 2021, in which he promised that the people would see more of him “slowly, slowly. Like a striptease.” Putting aside his words, I think Saif was smart in choosing his attire — the Libyan brown Bedouin dress that made him look exactly like his father, the colonel. It was clear that he was trying to send a message to the people that his Western audience would not understand, resembling his late father in a way that reminded us of the “good old days,” when Libya was Libyan and we owned our decision-making, not allowing Westerners or other foreigners to control our fate. He played on this nostalgia during the interview and in the photographs that were published, which showed him praying in Bedouin attire in the desert, demonstrating his ties to the Libyan people, suffering as they do, asking God for redemption like them.

The perception of a shared suffering with the people, however true or false, may benefit Saif if Libya’s scheduled presidential elections do go ahead. His “surprise” announcement that he was running for president was likely the real reason the elections, planned for December 2022, were “postponed” — that, and the fact Haftar launched a special armed operation in the south following the announcement. Saif may not win the election, but he would give any contestant a run for their money, with his reputation as the Libyan messiah.

When I argue with friends who fought Gadhafi in 2011 that Saif won’t redeem Libya from its suffering, they declare their intention to vote for him regardless. For them, and many ex-rebels like them, their former enemy has become the long-awaited champion of the people.

Is Saif’s ambition to restore Libya to the way it was before the revolution realistic? It seems unlikely. The Libya of today is far from the “Libya of Tomorrow” that he once championed. It is a dark place, no longer a heaven on earth but a kind of hell, run by powerful militias and controlled by foreign influence. Both international and regional players have their own agendas and politicians who are willing to serve them just to remain relevant. Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah, head of the Government of National Unity since 2021 and the emerging politician whose rise has deepened the divide in Libya, is an example of the “serve to survive” type of person. He is adept at making political deals with whoever can help lengthen his rule. The problem with nostalgia is that it is only a reconstruction of the past. It freezes time for people to reminisce, but we cannot undo subsequent mistakes.

If the crown prince had a more realistic plan, I would support him. I wouldn’t do the same for Saif, not because his version of the past is not realistic, but because I do not trust the image he portrays to the world, that he is willing to make peace with all that happened in the past decade, to forgive what the rebels did to him, his family and especially how they treated his father. I don’t trust that, with his return, we would have peace and unity rather than ongoing war and vengeance.

However different, both figures are trying to harness nostalgia and manipulate Libyans. They both fail to realize that, while the past is no more, no matter how much Libyans try to reconstruct it, the future is up for grabs. No plan to go “back to the future” is going to save Libya from its current crises, but a leader who can unite the country without paying tribute to a warlord, an international or regional power, a Sufi shrine or the devil just might.

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