It is an acquired truth that Libya as a country, or better, a single entity did not come into being until 1934. Back then, the regions that composed Libya were assembled by the newly appointed Italian governor Italo Balbo into one whole unit to be administered. This period was cut short by Italy’s defeat in WWII: the country’s “liberation” resulted in its splitting into different areas, each under a European country’s mandate. The few years spent together under Italian rule did not do much to foster a sense of unity among the Libyans who remained loyal to their traditional allegiances: the family and the tribe.
Scholars such as Ernest Gellner and many others proved that national identities are a modern phenomenon and a largely “constructed” one. This means that a national identity is created by the elite of a certain society for power enhancement reasons. This is obtained through the utilization and manipulation of various tools such as selective history, military conscription, or centralized education to uniformly impose the chosen narrative. The only constraint to this elite’s action is that there has to be a commonly understood and shared mythomoteur shared by the collectivity in order to be transformed into a national identity.
It is clear that this attempt in Libya was barely initiated through a compromise between the country’s Western, republican elites and the Eastern pro-monarchy ones. This attempt was not continued convincingly under the monarchy — where the ruler was content to govern through tribal manipulations — and ultimately collapsed under Qaddafi.
In fact, the long-time Libyan dictator emphasized the “Arab” identity of Libyans first to be followed by the “Islamic” one before concluding the end of his rule with the “African” one. Practically everything but a de facto Libyan identity. It was no wonder that the notions of unity and national identity collapsed on the eve of the 2011 revolts, when Libyans went back to the concepts of family and tribe once more.
According to this view, today, Libyans are still divided among many tribes and urban centers which are often in rivalry — if not open conflict — with one another. More importantly, the only feeling of unity that is stronger than tribal allegiances is the division between the three ancient regions that divided Libya for centuries: Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan. The belief in this regional distinctiveness is at the core of the small yet aggressively federalist movement. It is also further proved by today’s apparent division of the country in different areas of control that are roughly equivalent to the three regions’ borders.
There is also another narrative, one that sees the passing of sixty years of unity with a 70% urbanization rate, centralized schooling system, and national military conscription as having created a robust sense of belonging to a nation-state with a common national identity. Identities are fluid and allow for resorting to a more basic one when the higher identity is threatened or inconvenienced, but this does not mean that it doesn’t exist and that, in different physical conditions, could be the main one.
Neither before nor after the revolts did the federalist movement or its ideas gain much ground in any of the regions, but the aggressiveness of its supporters was strong enough to condition and force the first post-Qaddafi era government to change the purposes and scope of the first elections in 2012 by imposing a rigid regional quota system for the appointment of the constitutional assembly; thus fatally disrupting the electoral and democratization processes. They were also behind the failure of the attempts to realize a national dialogue conference before holding elections.
All these events carried negative consequences upon which other mistakes compounded the country verging on collapse as it is today.
To conclude, whether Libyans have a sense of national identity or not is still an open question, what is certain is that the current status quo militates against the establishment of such an identity and strengthens divisive factors. For the sake of national and regional stability as well as Libya’s successful transition to a pluralistic and open system, this current divisive situation ought to be resolved.
The most probable scenario for Libya is the entrenchment of divisions due to the polarization of the country in different poles each fostered and supported by a foreign actor. As such, a fragmented population will be easier to be dominated and bent to a foreign proxy’s interests. It is now more than ever evident that the only way for Libyans to maintain independence and sovereignty would be for them to unite and form a common, cohesive front to determine their future. If the political class understand this as well there is good chance for a more positive scenario, one that could be centered around the realization of a National Dialogue Conference. Within the framework of this event, Libyan representatives from all regions and sectors of society could gather to reiterate their common identity and desires as well as establish the rules of the game for the political development of their polity. Only through such an act of volition and expression of their will can Libyans keep their country for themselves and determine their own future.