Nayed’s vision for Libya worthy of support
It is no coincidence that Libya became the secondary territorial claim of Daesh back in 2014, just after the heartland of eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq. Like Syria and northern Iraq, Libya had a combination of lawlessness left behind by a crumbling state authority — as the country was sinking deeper into a fractious, multi-front civil war — and a history of politicized Islam, which had been instrumentalized by political leaders in the region for decades. This created both the material conditions and the cultural impetus for an entire generation of young men to take arms for the most simplistic and radical extremist organization on offer; though the influx of money and foreign fighters coming from the Levant to support opening up this second front also helped, of course.
But, to the credit of the Libyans, however divided they are in virtually every other respect, all other factions agreed that Daesh needed to be rooted out of the country, and this was achieved relatively swiftly and thoroughly within just a couple of years. There remain, of course, fighters associated with Daesh scattered across the the country’s sparsely populated hinterlands, but today there is little trace of a Daesh “territory” in Libya, let alone a “state.”
Yet politicized, and armed, Islam in the country remains deeply rooted. Though Daesh was stamped out, radical Islamist groups and militias are the norm among the plurality of regional and local power players in the unholy mess that is the ongoing civil war — each with their own doctrinal views, their own local and international affiliations and sponsors, and their own axes to grind with rival groups.
To the Western observer, it might be tempting to think that all these groups must be stamped out, perhaps as they have been in Egypt after Abdel Fattah El-Sisi seized power with the secularist-leaning army. This is what one of the main belligerents, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of the “Libyan National Army” and effective leader of the Tobruk government, is proposing for the future of Libya.
Although the “national army” is perhaps the most powerful armed force involved in the conflict, it is too weak to impose itself even on just the Islamist groups combined, before we take into account other players and the authorities in Tripoli who do continue to have Western backing. Given this relative weakness, a path of suppression on the model of Egypt is not practically available to Libya, never mind ethically or politically desirable: Not from the notionally secularist army of Haftar or from anyone else.
The path toward a peaceful and united Libya cannot, in practice, be anything but one of reconciliation and cooperation. And that kind of path forward requires two things. Firstly, the taming of the centrifugal cultural forces that are tearing Libyans apart; specifically of politicized Islam used by different “leaders” for different purposes, under thin appeals to doctrinal differences, which mask personal ambitions and tribal rivalries. And, secondly, fresh faces who do not have the blood of their fellow citizens on their hands, but who can nevertheless command respect across all sections of Libyan society.
To date, only one individual has announced his candidacy for the presidency, Dr. Aref Ali Nayed, a Canada-educated Islamic scholar, engineer and current Libyan Ambassador to the UAE. Nayed seems to be uniquely positioned and uniquely qualified, certainly amongst expected potential rivals, to tackle precisely this most fundamental problem of Libya’s political culture.
No influential sectarian leader and no powerful militia leader currently on the political map of Libya can (so far) claim to have the knowledge and authority to speak on Islam to the same degree that Nayed does. In a country where so many young men will fight and die for Islam, Nayed plans to use this scholarly authority to teach them how they might live and learn to coexist for Islam.
The path toward a peaceful and united Libya cannot, in practice, be anything but one of reconciliation and cooperation.
Dr. Azeem Ibrahim
Western nations may be hesitant to support an Islamic scholar, but Nayed claims that he defies Western Islamophobic stereotypes in that he is an Islamic scholar but is also deeply rooted both in civil society and in democratic politics in Libya, and has been ever since the 1990s, when he returned to the country from his studies and businesses abroad. He was an active pro-democracy political activist against the Qaddafi dictatorship, he has been consistently working toward consensus-based politics in the political chaos since the death of Qaddafi, and he has done so with no involvement with any militias.
His manifesto states that he is running on a platform of inclusive, localist democratic Libyan politics, which would celebrate and foster all of the country’s local political idiosyncrasies, predicated on an inclusive Islam tolerant of and actively engaged with divergent theological views and debates, under the peace enforced by a democratic federal government. If implemented, this is a vision that can unite Libya and Libyans, and is perhaps the only kind of vision that can foster peace among the proud, competitive and belligerent people of his country.
In practice, Nayed has made the physical elimination of Daesh remnants from the country his top priority. This would be followed by a concerted and clear-eyed approach to eradicating the ideological and cultural instrumentalization of Islam in the service of violent tribal squabbles, which are the soil in which Daesh and all other brands of violent Islamism grow and thrive. That surely is a vision we can all support.
- Dr. Azeem Ibrahim is a Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College and author of “Rise and Fall? ISIS in Libya” (SSI Publication: 2019)