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“I cannot sit idly by”: in Libya, the royal dream of Prince el-Senoussi

Correspondent in London.

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“I cannot sit idly by”: in Libya, the royal dream of Prince el-Senoussi

Correspondent in London

The idea may seem anachronistic, going against the major movements of our time. However, it is indeed a return to the old world that some Libyan politicians envisage by talking about a restoration of the monarchy. A last-ditch solution to put an end to a chaotic situation and try to unify the country. A prospect for which Mohammed el-Senoussi, the crown prince, who lives in London, where Le Figaro met him, is preparing.

In January, Prime Minister Abdelhamid Dbeibah asked him to return to Tripoli. He even asked the members of the Presidential Council to free the Ahd Palace, which once belonged to the prince's father. This return was announced for February. Premature, even though for some time the emir has been seeing a lot of people. Representatives of different ethnic groups, leaders of all tribes, members of Parliament travel to meet him, in Istanbul in particular. “There must be a consensus, a large majority must accept the return of the monarchy, we do not want to force things. And I want this dialogue to be open to all Libyans, we must include everyone, including the former Gaddafis, says Mohammed el-Senoussi, we must know how to forgive, otherwise reconciliation will be impossible. For him, the dialogue held under the aegis of the UN is of good will, but it has its limits, because it is “restricted to certain sectors of society”.

The emir dreams of a peacemaking role, the throne to overcome divisions. “The monarchy unified Libya after 1951 and today it alone can carry the Libyan identity while representing all the ethnic groups of the country,” he said, “it is an ideal democratic umbrella for all the tribes.” According to him, the monarchy would have the merit of answering two important questions: who will be the head of state and who will lead the army. In this constitutional and hereditary monarchy, the king is supposed to exercise executive power. In the event of a major blockage, he can also dissolve the Assembly and call elections. “The monarchy can solve many problems,” he insists. This 61-year-old man claims to have the will and energy for this mission today. “I cannot stand idly by and watch my country risk disappearing altogether,” he confides. “There is no more time to lose, the situation has continued to become more complex with layers of crises, ranging from insecurity to political instability through the mismanagement of natural resources and public funds .”

Met in the upscale Mayfair district, the man is lively and affable. Composed, speaking in a calm and determined voice, without arrogance or affectation. Regarding his activities in London, he remains discreet, ensuring that he mainly deals with Libya. Mohammed el-Senoussi has not seen his country since he left it at the age of 25. It was 1988, and Colonel Gaddafi had just authorized his father, Hassan el-Reda el-Senoussi, to go into exile. Mohammed Reda Senoussi's great-uncle, King Idris I, ascended the throne in 1951, while Libya had only emerged as a true sovereign state after the Second World War. The new Constitution then made the country a federal state, the “United Kingdom of Libya”. But the Senoussi dynasty, better established in Cyrenaica than in Tripolitania, struggled to unify the country, where the tribal leaders retained their power. In 1963, in order to strengthen this fragile unity and to be able to exploit the new oil windfall, the federal form was abandoned and the country became the “kingdom of Libya”.

The el-Senoussi family is of Algerian Cherifian origin, from the Béni Snous tribe, in the Tlemcen region. She was at the head of the great Sanousiyya religious brotherhood, founded at the end of the 1830s. Possessing a powerful fortune, the Senoussi spread to Libya but also to Arabia, Egypt, Chad and Sudan. They notably controlled the old slave route and fought the French in Chad as well as the Italian colonizers in Libya. The peak of their power was the coronation of Idris I, with the blessing of the British.

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On September 1, 1969, while King Idris I was visiting abroad, a group of “free unionist officers”, led by the young captain Muammar Gaddafi, carried out a coup d’état. The father of the current prince, Hassan el-Reda, then governs in place of King Idris, his uncle, who is convalescing in Turkey. He must read an act of abdication on television, after having written it “with a gun to his head”. The monarchy is abolished and the “Libyan Arab Republic” proclaimed. Gaddafi, aged 27, takes the reins of state. The prince's father spent two years in prison before being released. In 1984, the house that the family occupied in Tripoli was burned down. Four years later, Hassan el-Reda was allowed to travel to London for treatment after a stroke. Upon the death of his father in April 1992, Mohammed el-Senoussi became head of the Royal House.

Gaddafi's regime fell in 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring, under the blows of a rebellion supported by international intervention. Gaddafi himself is captured and killed. Since then, the country has remained prey to profound instability, delivered to the rivalries which undermine the country and divided between the West and the East. Each camp is supported by regional and international powers. Two competing governments vie for power. Installed in Tripoli, in the West, the first is recognized by the UN. The second, based in Benghazi, has the support of Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the strong man of Cyrenaica, the eastern region of the country. The two parties each have an extension within Parliament, which de facto has two rival legislative chambers. Mohammed el-Senoussi is sorry that the Libyans destroyed their country “with their own hands”, the foreign troops having only intervened because of their actions. “Today, everyone is fighting for a share of power and to steal the country's money,” he regrets, “but these people are also victims in a certain way, because they were unable to study or rise during the Gaddafi era. He wants to see “Libya stand straight again”.

While the country no longer has a Constitution, Mohammed Reda Senoussi advocates a return to that of 1951. This text established a unified kingdom made up of three regions, each benefiting from broad autonomy. The prince refutes the arguments of those who believe that a 70-year-old Constitution is necessarily obsolete. “That of the United States is two hundred years old and that did not stop them from going to the Moon,” he points out, “but for all that, the Libyan Constitution is not a holy book. We can amend it and we must modernize it to meet the challenges of the times.” For him, it is first necessary to restore the latter and for Parliament to function to tackle modifications to the text. Likewise, he believes that we should not rush into elections, which should only be held once tensions have eased. He regrets that the UN and other international actors want to reproduce Western systems, “which cannot work with our culture, our tribes”. “We need democracy, but adapted to our culture,” he said, “we must take into account the geography and history of Libya. Look, France and the United States are two republics and yet the French republican system would not suit America, and vice versa…”

“The crown prince can benefit from real positive capital, the monarchical period having been followed by two nightmarish eras for Libyans, the Gaddafi period between 1969 and 2011 and what followed after 2011, notes Jalel Harchaoui, researcher associated with Rusi (Royal United Services Institute) of London, but its return seems improbable to me because there are not enough significant players, inside Libya or outside, who support this project. This Libya specialist also wonders which version of the Libyan Constitution we are talking about. From its federal or non-federal version? And would today's king be like that of the United Kingdom, a symbol of unity but without real powers?

The prince claims to have good contacts with states in the region and even beyond, but he does not want to name them. It would notably have the support of Jordan and Qatar - two monarchies -, the latter country being close to the Muslim Brotherhood, who, inside Libya, also view the return of the monarchy favorably. Turkey would not oppose this option either. According to certain sources, these are the countries which encouraged the Prime Minister to work for the return of the prince. For Abdelhamid Dbeibah, increasingly weakened, the maneuver would be a way to keep his position and block the path of Marshal Haftar - who has the support of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and the Russians - as well as his younger son of Colonel Gaddafi, Seïf al-Islam. The United Kingdom would also be in favor of a return of the prince. But researcher Jalel Harchaoui sees another major pitfall in such a return. “As soon as he sets foot on Libyan soil, he will have to put himself under the physical protection of the armed faction controlling the region where he will be. No one can do otherwise. And he will immediately lose the only political capital he has, his neutrality.”

Mohammed el-Senoussi, however, remains convinced that the monarchy, strong in its historical legitimacy and its constitutional foundations, remains the best way to appease discord. The Spanish example confirms this. In the past, the prince has expressed his interest in the political trajectory of this country with the restoration of the monarchy which followed the death of Franco. He sees this as proof that “especially in times of crisis and transition, a constitutional monarchy anchored in history and national identity is capable of uniting a people”.

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