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The Constitutional Battle over Libya's Identity

This past December, the Constituent Assembly of Libya published a draft of preliminary suggestions and ideas concerning the constitution so that Libyans could discuss them and provide their opinions before a referendum in March. While there were no obvious flaws in the form of the draft, the language and content of some articles relating to the nature of the state and its foundations, is problematic.

Article 7, for example, stipulates: “Libya is an Islamic state part of the grand Arab Maghreb and part of Africa built on comprehensive and diversified constants. It takes pride in all social and cultural components represented by the Arabs, Amazigh, Tuaregs, Tabu, and others. It shall establish the means to ensure maintenance thereof.” Although seemingly innocuous, this article in its current form would subtly transform the state’s political identity into a religious one. Libya should not be an Islamic country, but rather a country with a national identity. Islam constitutes a cultural factor in the country’s national identity, but it does not constitute a political identity in and of itself. Similarly, Article 8 states that Islam is the “religion of the state.” While this might be acceptable to the majority of Libyans who are Muslim, stating that “Libya is an Islamic state” in reference to the country’s identity, could open the door to the Islamization of Libya.

What reinforces these concerns is that Libya has turned into a safe haven for Islamist organizations and armed militias. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has officially declared its presence in eastern Libya, and the Muslim Brotherhood has increased its activity in the west and south. There are differences in the tactics and strategy of ISIS and the Muslim Brotherhood, but they share the same goal: the establishment of the Caliphate. In contrast to ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood seeks to do this gradually by “peacefully Islamizing society,” according to their leader in Libya. The strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood hinges on reengineering the state’s identity by trying to fracture Libya’s unifying and resilient national identity and politicizing its cultural components (both religious and ethnic) and then reuniting them under the banner of an Islamic identity.

The cultural identities mentioned in Article 7 were also surprising, particularly with respect to the Tuareg, as they do not form a distinct cultural group like the Tabu. The Tuareg are Amazigh who speak the group’s language and write using the Tifinagh script. The name Tuareg simply describes the Amazigh who inhabit the country’s southern desert as opposed to other Amazigh who live in the coast or mountains. The decision to define themselves as a discrete group grants them minority status and a defined role in the political process. However, cultural identities should be determined based on unique ethnic characteristics, not political motives. Moreover, it is unclear as to why all the various cultural identities are mentioned when identifying the state’s political identity.

In light of these issues, Article 7 of the constitution might be better phrased as follows: “Libya is a civil state built on a unifying national identity that includes various cultural identities – namely Islam, Arab, Amazigh, and Tabu – and that is rich in its African and Mediterranean roots.” The issue of national identity in the Libyan constitution is crucial. It cannot open the door for political Islam or any other politicization of cultural identities, which could threaten Libya’s unity, sovereignty, and stability.
Dr. Ayman Grada is an academic researcher and political analyst interested in Libyan affairs He is the cofounder of Libyan Youth Voices. He can be followed on Twitter @AGrada.

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