Democracy Lab

Back to the Future in Libya

Why some Libyans see a solution to the country's political crises in a document that was published 63 years ago.

As Libya's temporary governing institutions struggle for survival amid political, legal, and security problems that threaten civil war, an oasis of order can be found in the small eastern city of al-Baida, where a committee of 55 has been quietly writing a constitution. Specially elected by various constituencies but equally representing Libya's three regions, they bear the responsibility for writing a new constitution. Paradoxically, however, the greatest obstacle to their work may be less their country's troubled present than widespread nostalgia for its past.

The reason is that, despite the convening of the National Constituent Assembly (NCA), Libyans from all walks of life have been calling for restoration of the country's last pre-Qaddafi constitution, which was established in 1951. The widespread devotion to the document might be surprising: It establishes a monarchy and declares Islam to be the official state religion without specifying the role of sharia, or Islamic law. Both aspects are, in fact, controversial. The overwhelming majority of Libyans reject the restoration of the king, and Libyans differ widely on whether sharia should be the only source of law and legislation, a source among many, or left out of the constitution altogether. Yet a pending General National Congress (GNC) proposal backed by GNC member Ahmed Langhi -- whose family was closely tied with the pre-Qaddafi regime -- is urging a referendum on whether the 1951 constitution should be used as a basis for a new constitution. (This is the second such effort by GNC members within a year.) If it were put to a popular vote, Libyans would likely choose reinstatement.

Others have distanced themselves from the 1951 constitution. Amr Ben Halim, whose father served as prime minister under the former king, has personal experience with the shortcomings of the 1951 constitution. He remembers the monarchical period through the eyes of his father, who experienced the disarray of the government created according to the tenets of the old constitution. In his authoritative history of 20th-century Libya, American scholar Dirk Vandewalle describes a system in which regions received federal monies without accountability, leaving the national government with almost no ability to enforce its own law. While he does not support reinstatement of the 1951 constitution, he views its drafting process as a model for today. The process ensured that Libya's regions were represented equally and that the public was consulted at the early stages. Support for the 1951 constitution's drafting process by people like Ben Halim is precisely why the NCA's drafting process ensures equal representation from Libya's three districts.

This "realistic nostalgia" -- a term coined by Ahmed Langhi's daughter, Zahra, a women's rights activist -- has given hope to Prince Mohammed el-Senussi, the man who would be king if the old constitution is restored. In June, the leaders of Libya's 40 tribes convened, ostensibly to "pray for peace and unity" at the Zawia Baida, the white monastery in the same small town accommodating the NCA. The private purpose of the meeting was to begin harmonizing the tribes to ultimately oppose radical elements within Libya. Given the alleged architect of the meeting, Prince Senussi himself, it is not difficult to guess how this harmonizing might have been done: The tribal leaders aimed to influence the NCA to adopt the 1951 text or to vote on its adoption among themselves. Prince Senussi is the great-nephew and heir apparent of King Sayed Mohamed Idris al-Mahdi el-Senussi, who heralded Libyan independence and its first constitution in 1951. A restored and un-amended 1951 constitution would reinstate the Senussi monarchy.

The push from tribal leaders, coupled with the popular cry for restoration of the 1951 constitution, does not bode well for the NCA, which has established a committee to determine the governing structure of a new Libya. (The photo above shows Libyan officials, tribal leaders, and civil society representatives at a ceremony launching the constitution-drafting process in April.) A fully resurrected 1951 document would preclude any choice in the matter. The NCA, elected by the people, should be able to determine Libya's constitutional future, including its form of government, constitutional monarchy or otherwise. That said, the NCA would do well to consider using healthy portions of the 1951 text and structure to capitalize on its popular support in legitimating the final document.

Libyan's hankering for a 60-year-old constitution seems at odds with current constitutional trends toward the expansion of human rights and the reduction of the number of constitutional monarchies. Indeed, from most scholars' viewpoint, reinstatement of the 1951 constitution, in the words of one influential international authority in Libya, "makes no sense."

Above all else, the 1951 constitution establishes an incredibly powerful head of state. While such power was safely entrusted to Sayed Idris, a man who consistently put the interests of the greater good ahead of his own, there is always a risk that Libya may not be so lucky with future monarchs. Putting such faith in the lottery of genetics -- with the added temptation of potentially corrupting oil wealth -- will lead to disaster.

Libya has the world's ninth-largest crude oil reserves, the largest in Africa. Qaddafi was happy to exploit these assets to bolster his own dictatorship. Libya's recent past, including its experience of the "resource curse," reinforces the urgency of the need for the separation and balance of powers. Oil wealth invariably encourages the head of state to expand executive power to rake in more profits: Witness the careers of regional leaders such as Qaddafi, Nasser, or Ben Ali. To curb executive expansion, the new constitution must dole out equal amounts of power -- and protective checks -- to the other branches of government. It should also include better provisions on open meetings, record keeping, and a right to access information, not to mention specifics on how oil revenues will be distributed and contracts kept transparent.

Other major issues of the 1951 text are regional power and governance structures and the role of sharia. As "progressive" as the 1951 constitution is, its singular recognition that "Islam is the religion of the state" will likely not attract the kind of Libyan consensus that will be required for constitutional longevity. The old constitution also prohibits dual citizenship; limits freedom of religion and thought; bans teaching anything "contrary to morality"; lacks any accommodation for minority languages; and establishes two capitals, an unworkable setup. It also guarantees an "appropriate standard of living" for everyone, which, while admirable, might not be economically feasible. Its inclusion of the rights to work and education might be unenforceable and would effectively award legislative powers to the judiciary by allowing unelected judges to dictate complex employment and education policies. Meanwhile, the 1951 constitution fails to ensure judicial independence, a problem that could be remedied by including articles on life tenure and judicial review.

In some respects, nevertheless, the 1951 constitution can serve as a useful model. For instance, its legislature arrangement -- a proportionally elected Chamber of Deputies and a regionally elected Senate -- could provide a workable compromise between federalists and non-federalists (or those in favor of proportional representation, largely those in population-dense Tripolitania). The human rights section, which includes provisions banning torture and guaranteeing public trials, equal opportunity, and freedom of conscience, also provides a good first draft of a bill of rights.

Perhaps the greatest strength of the 1951 document is its place in history. Libya has been free only once in its pre-Qaddafi history, and the 1951 constitution is a potent symbol of liberty to Libyans. With good reason, the Senussi era of independence has a firm hold upon the minds of Libyans. Including passages from this constitution could unite Libyans around the new constitution as a representation of a hard won freedom.

When revolutionary stirrings first began in Benghazi on February 17, 2011, some accounts witnessed Libyans flocking to the Benghazi courthouse, raising the Senussi flag, and calling for the Senussi constitution. Those who have since waved the 1951 flag -- which is ubiquitous in Libya -- would certainly support a constitution that preserves the old charter's elements and character. Popular support of a new constitution is no small matter in producing an enduring text, a consideration the NCA would be wise to take seriously in its deliberations.



Turn On, Retweet, Tune Out

From Syria to Gaza to #BringBackOurGirls, what makes people care about stories one minute -- and forget about them the next?

Deborah Sanya, an 18-year-old Nigerian student who was kidnapped by Boko Haram in the mass raid on a school in Chibok back in mid-April, took a tremendous risk and bolted. Through the night, she and two friends ran and ran, eventually reaching safety in a village. When New Yorker reporter Alexis Okeowo spoke to Sanya at the end of April, she described how the young woman was fasting and eating, fasting and eating, all the while interspersing that with prayer.

At the time when Okeowo's article came out, many in the world were riveted by the plight of the Nigerian schoolgirls: It was a story with terror and mystery and a need for world attention -- immediately. The infamous #BringBackOurGirls campaign began online. People got mad. Op-eds appeared. World leaders indignantly spoke out.

Yet more than three months later, with most of the girls still in captivity, global cries to help them are intermittent at best. It's hardly the first time a cause has hit the headlines, only to slide slowly into the shadows, like a cranky child quietly banished to her room after throwing a temper tantrum. Remember Kony 2012?


In addition to the big hits that live and die hard, there are countless issues people care about on and off at best. See: Syria; Israel-Palestine; a number of countries with intense war and suffering in Africa (the Central African Republic, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo); HIV/AIDS.

What exactly is going on in the attention economy that people have little room (or desire) for sustained empathy? Too many causes? Too far away? Certainly, the media bear blame; there's limited space in newspapers, in magazines, and on the nightly news, and even on the boundless Internet, journalists are always looking for the next story. Still, this is insufficient to explain what makes people care one minute -- and not the next. Something else is going on, and I asked several experts, including activists and academics, to explain what it is.


To start, what makes a cause or campaign, when it bursts onto the scene, really take hold? "Bring Back Our Girls was the function of not only a story that created empathy, plus the Internet, but an unfinished story, so our minds kept pushing at it, as if at a sore tooth," says activist Gloria Steinem, who has decades of experience at the forefront of the U.S. women's rights movement. (Steinem is the founder of the project I run at the Women's Media Center, Women Under Siege.)

In other words, it's the lack of a resolution -- and the potential of one coming -- that grabs interest. But Steinem says, too, that she fears people lose interest in staying until the end when it doesn't come quickly enough. People are in it for the plot, and they'll turn their attention elsewhere when the twists stop happening. "It's been my experience that the single most important bridge to caring is not a fact or a statistic, it's a story," Steinem says.

Similarly, Columbia Journalism Professor Helen Benedict, who has written extensively about women and violence in the military, says that what will make people care is "fiction that pulls people out of their own skins and little worlds and puts them in those of others.... Putting oneself in another's shoes. Using one's imagination to break through myopia."

The story of Bring Back Our Girls has stalled for a global audience because there has been little progress in finding them. And so people have found other things about which to worry: serious things such as the news from Gaza and the child immigrants crossing the U.S.-Mexican border, and then the usual fluff, like how much Kim Kardashian is making on her new Facebook game.

In Nigeria, however, the campaign continues. Supporters hold vigils and meet with politicians.

Steinem says people outside the country would still care as well, if the Nigerian girls weren't so nameless and faceless. "If we knew even one of these girls," she says, "empathy would follow. One person would stand for many more."

Social scientists tend to agree. "We have to identify in order to care," says Frank Ochberg, a psychiatrist at Michigan State University and chairman emeritus of Columbia Journalism School's Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma. "We can't just satisfy our curiosity; we need more than that. The human portraits have to evoke evolving emotion. If we just feel outrage or pity or even compassion, that isn't enough. We need to go through the stages that draw us into life narratives, sustaining our attention, our belief that some significant denouement is on the horizon."

Ochberg describes a three-act process that occurs in the development of a heavy international story. In "Act One," the traumatic event is identified and described; for example, the Nigerian girls go missing and news stories pour forth with all the known details. People begin to care. A lot. A hashtag carries things forward. For a little while, at least. In "Act Two," people "return to normalcy after great upheaval." Here there are more contemplative dimensions to the international response: coverage of the victims, of trauma and recovery (for instance, the New Yorker piece about Sanya, in which faceless girls were made more three-dimensional). In "Act Three," there is "unrequited loss, pointless suffering, persistent evil." People do not have the ability to easily tolerate this dark final act: the realization that there may be no happy resolution to reach, no transcendent truth, no meaning. So in an attempt to preserve ourselves emotionally, humans circle back to the parts of a story -- a new story -- that are more easily digestible: the shock of an event, the personalized follow-up, the urgency of wanting and demanding to know what happens next.

"Our species does remember certain things 'in our bones,' and we have deep resonance with personal tragedies and with societal traumas," Ochberg says. "[But] our species is also forgetful and easily bored. So no wonder we lose interest in a calamity and go on to the next 'Act One' of a news cycle."

Right now, the story of the Nigerian schoolgirls is in Act Three. There is nothing good to report. There is not even very much to report at all; the Nigerian government has been virtually silent on what it is doing to rescue the girls. From the media's perspective, there aren't headlines to be written. From a more personal perspective, it hurts to sustain attention on the story -- particularly the speculation about what it is that isn't known. For instance, while the Nigerian government does little, the girls are likely being raped, experts say. That's not easy to digest.


In April, three experimental psychologists released a study of the Kony 2012 viral campaign that suggests sustained attention isn't easy to hold for yet another reason. The first video that the NGO Invisible Children produced about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony was incredibly successful, the study's authors argue, because of its simplicity. The message was clear: Kony has caused terrible, terrible problems in Uganda, especially for children used as soldiers, and he must be found and brought to justice. A more nuanced follow-up video that "acknowledged more of the complexity regarding the situation in central Africa," by contrast, didn't gain nearly the same traction.

"Reducing a complex issue to the actions of a single enemy can inspire moral outrage and inspiration to take action," the authors write.

This could also help explain the diminishing attention paid to the Chibok kidnappings. As journalists who've stuck with the story and concerned NGOs discuss important intricacies (Nigerian politics, security-sector corruption) and the difficulties of finding the girls (Boko Haram's mysterious inner workings, the challenges posed by geography), stories and updates resound with a big, silent thud. (To be sure, many activists are at an uneasy peace with this reality -- hence the continued simplification of what needs to be done on a host of pressing humanitarian issues. See, for instance, "conflict minerals" in the Democratic Republic of Congo.)

"Had we all more compassion, more empathy for global atrocities, the daily videos of sniper fire and innocents being killed from Syria would have moved us by now to say 'do something,'" TMS Ruge, a social media strategist and campaigner from Africa, wrote on in 2012. "But they haven't. Why? Because no one has invaded our Facebook time line demanding we watch a 30-minute Hollywood production simplifying the issue for us."

"It is an indictment on what moves us to act," he adds.

Other advocates and journalists I spoke to, however, generally agree that people aren't dumb or heartless when it comes to humanitarian matters. They think global audiences are unconsciously pushing away bad news as they try to lead their own peaceful lives.

"It's not that people don't care," says feminist writer and activist Soraya Chemaly. "It's that caring is dangerous and might cost too much." She calls it "a self-protective willful blindness." Keeping painful truths at a distance "enables people to believe that they are immune from the risk, that their behavior, their traditions, their belief systems aren't implicated in harm."

Echoing Chemaly, Steinem, and others, Steven Hawkins, the head of Amnesty International USA since September 2013, says he sees the challenge of making people care about atrocities "over there" as "one of broadening."

"If we're going to go deeper, and I think we can, then you have to connect the relevancy of human rights with what's going on in people's lives," Hawkins says. "We have to find ways to bring human rights home."

Good journalism and strong activism, then, mean helping people see -- and keep seeing -- that no one lives in isolation. When someone is hurting, as the Nigerian girls and their families are, the world as a whole suffers. When governments fail to protect their citizens, collective vulnerability rises. And when media noise about atrocities and other horrible news dies down, journalists and audiences alike are failing not only to help those in need. We are also failing ourselves.