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Libyan Writer Ghoma

Friday, 12 August, 2005

1951 CONSTITUTION: A Nostrum of Humpty-Dumpty!

By: Ghoma

       For a quite a while now, and especially after the London Meeting, we started hearing more and more about the cant for the "return to the constitution," by this was meant the 1951 Constitution! The rise in the pitch of the voices calling for the return to "constitutional life," was sort of an echo out of thin air, chanted without any apparent qualms for such a paradoxical reversion (which looks and sounds more as a volte-face if not a reactionary historical revisionism), nor was matched by any change of reasoning or noticeable increase in the number or weight of the various groups and individuals who apparently have run out of oxygen and seeking a straw to hold onto by adopting such a dubious position. The only clue to such a stand was perhaps due to the presence in the aforementioned meeting of an apparently one-individual-organization, with a bearded sheikh as the body and the head of it, dedicated to the return of the monarchy and its trappings! Other than that the effort to resurrect a dusted and a long forgotten, historically transcended sham of a document, product of a forced process in an extraordinary circumstances with a bizarre and an archaic regime for which was the prop and the base. Nor were any meaningful research or critical revaluation to have prompted the crowd to further roil its not very clear vision to start with. For, the so-called constitution, if truth be told, was not worthy the paper on which it was written. Because it was a truly an ersatz contract and fake document which was never meant to be followed seriously nor for that matter to be put into real use. So what possibly has brought the new convulsion -or rather devolution!- may only help to wrap the aura given to such a document in more mysteries than the life it'd already lived and the process by which was delivered and adopted. The pressing question is: Why an opposition to tyranny wants to live under a Constitution which was designed to support an absolutist monarchy? And why suddenly this need for foundation, for continuity, and thus the return to the past? Let's take a step back to see what the respected oppositionists are trying to make us believe in, and how it came about, and who was behind it.

       If you're following the messy haggling going on in the Green Zone in the "Caliphs's Capital," Baghdad, this is perhaps only an updated version, at a distance of more than sixty years with different characters, pardon me, plotters! albeit, alas! with the same cast, of what went on then in the drafting of what was came to be called a Constitution. At the time, the land called Libya was more plain (crude) and in worse, in almost everything, conditions than today's Iraq. For a starter it was just balled over from one occupation to the next. The old occupier, Italy, was defeated but still holding a strong and sizeable presence while the victorious new occupier Britain as representative of the Allies, inebriated with its own success, though weakened, hadn't yet figured out what to do with the new acquisition. The spoils of war, as any sudden windfall, brought their own unforeseen and maybe unpredictable consequences. In this case the Allies couldn't find the right formula to divide the booty. Part of it because the Soviet Union wanted to get its nose in the tent and obtain a foothold on the boiling waters of the African Mediterranean coast. Thus the second best solution the haggard Empire's guardians could come up with was: let's all get out of the front door so each, on his own, can get back through the back door. So they decided to grant Libya its "independence"!

       Back then, the land called Libya, as far as social, economic, and political make up, was still inchoate. The eastern region was tribal, apparently, in the absence of an intertribal arrangement, had been hoodwinked by the sufi brotherhood of the Senussis to subscribe to their designs, that of the "Cyranaican Principality1," the southern provinces were sparsely inhabited and dominated by the clan of Seif an-Nassar, in some sort of arrangement reminiscent of feudal lords in the Middle Ages, were having some bargains and deals with the French; while the western region where most of the population resided, was not much better than the rest except perhaps its inhabitants had a different socio-political conditions. The social groups in what was then known as Tripolitania, were in a different economic and political level of development -grossly speaking, just a little bit beyond the tribal and nomadic subsistence levels than the rest of the country. If one is hesitant to characterize the relative difference as marking a qualitatively advanced stage of development ( remember the first republic in the Arab World was declared there in 1919, the Tripolitania Republic) certainly the historical configuration of those groups would've had constituted enough bases for getting the lead in the bargaining table for what to come. If they didn't, it was because both the Allies and their local stooges, the Senussis's Brotherhood, were determined to prevent a true independent and modern state, that's republican state, to take root in what's geographically could be seen as in the middle of the Arab World, at least geometrically!

       The Allies were not eager enough to truly liberate a region they'd coveted for long at least since the days of the Ottoman Empire. Furthermore, not only they had enough clues, if not fairly good knowledge, in advance, how pregnant that land was with such valuable natural resources as oil2, but they also were in need of one more cushions to protect the possessions of other members of the alliance in the area, and were pressed military and strategically to establish footholds and bases for the coming war -cold!- with the other hegemonic empire, the Soviet Union, etc. All these, in their eyes, were reasons enough not to grant a full independence or to seek a full sovereign state. As to the Brotherhood. Well, poor bunch of dunces! what they knew about the world? they neither had the power nor imagination to ask for more than what was thrown at their hands, or more precisely, at their feet! The Brotherhood's long association with the British, just as al-Saud clan today with the Americans, made of them a double-faced-creature, a Janus monster, if you wish! that's prone to play the double game of quislings when dealing with their sponsors - more precisely leash holders- and freedom's heroes, if not religious guardians, with their tribal bases.

       In such an environment a nominal process had to be started and an apparent neutral organization had to appear administering it, that's when the newly formed UN was assigned the task to usher the territory into some sort of a state. [Be reminded that the UN from its inception was never a neutral organization. Willed, financed, and controlled by the West]. Adrian Pelt was the Dutchman who was sent to advise and to supervise the delivery of the new state.[ From all the people in the world, a subject of a monarchical state!] Amid the hanky-panky of the great deceiver of them all, GB, and with the help of the Brotherhood, some committees were instituted and their members were appointed, in a roundabout way of tribal intrigues and arm twisting tactics, under all kinds of pressures from the protector and from some sort of blackmailing by the easterners -either accept our way or we go our own separate path! A kingdom had been instituted with some elementary guidelines to how the state is to be organized. The Basic Laws or what came to be known as the Constitution, were promulgated.

       The constitution, in its essence, was, from the beginning, an outdated draft (if compared to the two most famous constitutional antecedents and almost compulsory references, those of France and the US of America.) The only plausible characterization couldn't be more than an anachronistic document to its time, if not to its place. No new grounds were broken-in the areas of Rights or the mechanics of governance!- nor any meaningful freedoms were granted beyond the conventional lib-service rhetoric characteristic of oriental despotism. For instance the sovereignty goes from God-to-the nation-to-the-king -whatever that means! The two most powerful arms of the legislative were beyond the power or control of the people: The executive head of the state, the CEO, the king, and the upper chamber of the bicameral parliament, the Senate, were also beyond the people: the first of course for life, and the second entirely appointed by the king! They called such an arrangement democratic3?

       Even if we agree that a constitution is only a framework, it all depends on who's entrusted to its guard and how it's put to use. In addition to the lack of checks and balances, no institution was assigned to shepherd it. The mechanics and conditions of its birth had made of such a document, some sort of an operation of abortion, if not truly a dead-on-arrival, rather than a true delivery. In retrospective it appears, it was never meant to be applied4. No individual freedoms, no free press, parties were barred, and to boot as if these were not enough, the "election" were rigged5. If you add the known fact of the foreign troops never left the country, nor the settlers who'd appropriated all the good lands and every bolt and nut that counts economically, then you'd understand why the whole enterprise was doomed to collapse, it was just a matter of time. Furthermore, something else came on the scene that accelerated the demise of the badly contrived and shaky apparatus which had legitimized and supported the old regime, oil. Not its discovery. No. Oil, in Libya, was the secret everybody that counted knew. It was the exportation! It was the manna which ultimately broke the camel's back. The gang of kleptocrates didn't have the whereabouts nor could manage the consequences of such a sudden windfall, beyond of course, lining their own pockets.

       If we accept the premise that a Constitution is nothing more than an agreement, a coming-together, a compact sealed among equals, a contract among free-willing agents to live by. The "covenant or social contract" is usually drawn by free people, in full control of their circumstances and entered on out of their own free wills, with no concerns -except their own- pressures or outside threats. Only a document thus written and accepted can have the trust, consent, and legitimacy necessary to its respect6.

       The quick look to the conditions and circumstances in which the old Constitution was drawn and adopted made of it a real sham. An occupied population, by definition, had no free will nor, for that matter, can enter into a Contract of the rank of a Constitution, which wouldn't suit the will and desires of their masters. As such its legitimacy will be always in doubt especially in the eyes of the rising generations that have no part in its drafting -and whose pride will refuse any association with a document that came out of humiliating conditions- nor could it be taken as a historical precedent7.

       So, why all the hoopla about such a document? To get to enumerate all the reasons behind such a move is a bit too hasty at this point but suffice it to say human emotions have a great deal in the matter. Nostalgia gives rise to the tantalizing feelings of remembrance of times gone by. Reminiscences can lead to the confusion, and sometimes collusion, between childhood and national memories. Add these to other human traits: it seems no one likes to be hanging in limbo nor is it easy to start from scratch. People tend to gravitate toward signposts along the way: a point, a guide, a prop, a pivot, etc. to be as a reference and a support. This becomes more so the more the bases on which groups and individuals meet, not to talk about shared goals, are fuzzy and weak . On the other hand the heterogenous nature of the opposition, a sort of a rainbow coalition, didn't allow for more than a meeting on a few issue(s)! These issues were limited to the realm of the politicking, that's, change the conduct and perhaps some in the top echelons of the regime!

       Such a stand and those traits point to an overwhelming fact: the Opposition suffers from the lack of any intellectual vigor. Apparently it either never gave much thought to such effort, or couldn't find a use for ideas. In any case the result appears to be an intellectual vacuum, a desert! Thus, it takes no brainer, to be pickling in the past and its trappings. A mixed past invoked more for the nostalgia of their lost paradise8! An eclectic group, a coalition of religionists, royalists, half-hearted nationalist, half-baked secularists, etc. can only usher in an enchilada, worthy of the postmodern confusions, with a minimum of modicum of issues to agree on, what can them through the day! What brought them together, apparently, was not the desire to change the conditions that pushed them into exile but rather out of revenge, to strike back at the regime, and here only its head, and to vindicate themselves. The goal is to remove the regime, thus it doesn't matter what means were followed nor whether or not a better alternative exists. Their program is some sort of cut and paste from what the pundits and talking heads, in the Western media, keep chanting about. Democracy, return to the constitution, free enterprise, etc.


1- How Idris went from a head of a religious order to an aristocratic and political head figure is another of those twists of history! According a method followed by many colonial holders in tribal territories, that of bribing their chieftains. The Italians had played a major role in the process of elevating Idris to a 'prince,' hoping by giving him some bone to chew on with a salary and all the rest of the trappings they could pacify at least part of the country.

2- The Italians had conducted perhaps the most thorough and comprehensive geological survey, I believe in the mid '30's, of their entire venture in what its critics had dubbed the "Sand Box," looking precisely for the black stuff. The survey had indicated a strong probability of its existence. Only time prevented them from its discovery and exploitation.

3- Article 59, says: "The king shall be inviolable. He shall be exempted from responsibilities. And article 69: "The king shall declare war and conclude peace and enter into treaties which he ratifies after the approval of the Parliament." Notwithstanding, the concluding clause, which appears to be directed only toward treaties, war and peace were put in the hands of the king alone!

4- Article 1, says: "Libya is a free and independent sovereign state. Neither its sovereignty nor its territories may relinquished". Yet the regime had signed on foreign military bases and had conceded territories to the French in both the west and south of the country!

5- Articles 22, 23, 25, 26, 29 were concerned with freedoms of thought, press, association, meetings, teaching, etc. however, a clause was inserted at the end of each one of them, saying either shall be regulated by the law, or such and such activity or freedom may not be abused in any way which is contrary to public order or morality. In essence making their practices at the whims and caprices of both the executive and its courts.

6- Though the 1969's Constitutional Declaration, apparently had been made in relatively better conditions better than the 1951's Constitution, yet qualitatively, in its essence, was not much different than the old one. However, In addition to establishing the republican order, a fundamental leap had been done in the affirmation that the sovereignty as well as the sources of all powers reside in the people.

7- While it's a historical document, whether it can be considered as a precedent, even if it's held as illegitimate, is a matter open to debate. What constitutes a precedent is a complex and still a matter of debated issue among scholars in different fields. Anything material or immaterial has to be deemed worthy of respect and thus conservation. But it's first to be proven either to be a monument, or a cultural icon, or a historical link, or a challenging feat, etc..... and second there're enough supporters to back that claims up.

8- It seems a lot of Libyans, like many other expatriates, are confusing the nostalgia of their childhood with the national past. They glorify a past they'd hardly new -except, of course, for the few geriatrics of them. The common observation that emigrants live and die young refers to the image they carry around of sweet, peaceful and idyllic past of where they came from. Though they may have escaped persecution, poverty, etc. the memories of childhood are stronger than the circumstances of their leaving.

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