Libya’s National Forces Alliance is projected to score a landslide victory, according to preliminary vote counts following the weekend’s election for a new National Assembly. Sources close to the country’s electoral commission say the coalition is leading in 8 out of 13 electoral districts after a partial tally of votes.
If confirmed, the result “contradicts widespread doom saying about the inevitability of Islamist victories in contemporary Arab elections or the inability of non-Islamist forces to wage effective election campaigns,” says a leading analyst.
The election “contradicts widespread doom saying about the inevitability of Islamist victories in contemporary Arab elections or the inability of non-Islamist forces to wage effective election campaigns,” writes Hussein Ibish.
Led by Mahmoud Jibril, the American-educated former head of the Transitional National Council, the alliance is a broad coalition of some 58 political parties, civil society groups and independent political figures, which campaigned as a “more liberal, progressive option,” according to the Project on Middle East Democracy. The NFA’s electoral performance has been heralded as breaking the wave of recent victories by Islamist parties in Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco, but analysts say the reality is more complicated.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction party performed poorly, a senior official concedes.
“We had an expectation before the election, we have not reached that expectation,” said the party’s campaign manager Alamin Belhaj.
Belhaj, a businessman who lived with his wife and children in Manchester until returning for last year’s revolution, accused NDA leader Mahmoud Jibril of using unfair campaign practices for his victory, saying Jibril’s picture should not have appeared on campaign material as he was not himself running for office.
“Jibril is not a candidate, while his pictures are up all over the country, it’s a way of tricking people.”
The result surprised many analysts who expected the Islamists to reproduce the success of their counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco.
“We all predicted, we were wrong. I thought they [the Brotherhood] would do better, particularly here in Tripoli, because if you look back they were relatively organized,” said Dirk Vandewalle, author of A History of Modern Libya.
The NFA’s performance may have been due to the absence of the stark differences that separate Islamists and secularists in other Arab states.
“The division between secularists and Islamists so beloved by outsiders looking into Libya is a false one. Jibril’s [coalition] is a case in point,” says Tripoli-based analyst George Grant.
The NFA ran on a conservative campaign platform, promising a technocratic approach to government, which “probably suits a substantial portion of the population,” said Crispin Hawes, director of the Mideast and North Africa program at the Eurasia Group. “Libyan government departments and state companies are full of well-educated and technically-adept staff who are also genuinely conservative and observant Muslims. Jibril fits that very well.”
But the NFA, which says sharia law should provide the basis for legislation, “is not ‘liberal’ in the way we understand the word,” writes Shashank Joshi. “Islam is a major social force in Libya….No mainstream political party would say it was ‘secular.’”
Demographically, Libya is a small country,” but the election result is “highly significant for understanding emerging trends in post-dictatorship Arab societies,” writes Ibish:
It means, first, that the three post-uprising Arab states that have held elections have produced three divergent results. Islamists scored an overwhelming victory in the Egyptian parliamentary elections, and a narrower but clear one in the recent presidential vote. In Tunisia Islamists earned a plurality. ……This is all the more significant in that the three different results have taken place over the same 12-month period in three contiguous North African countries. Sociopolitical conditions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are very different, which helps explain the differing results. But the Libyan election contradicts predictions of an unstoppable Islamist trend, or the idea that Arabs in general will elect Islamist majorities in any free elections held under the current circumstances.
Second, Jibril’s apparent victory may well point the way forward for other non-Islamist forces in future Arab elections. In contrast to analogous groups in Tunisia and Egypt, Jibril’s alliance campaigned on its own merits, emphasizing Libyan nationalism and promising order and stability. It didn’t waste time terrifying voters about the threats posed by Islamists. And it included a certain degree of Muslim religious rhetoric in its campaign, while insisting on a non-Islamist stance. Jibril was politically astute and speaking to his own people when lecturing Western media not to keep referring to him and his alliance as “liberal” or “secular.” In truth, they are neither, at least in the conventional Western understandings of the terms. ….Crucially, Jibril did not make the mistake of ceding Islamic legitimacy to Islamist groups. Instead, he insisted on a share of it for his own alliance—no doubt crucial to his apparent success. His rhetoric on religion and politics reflects an understanding of the need for Arab non-Islamists to deny Islamists the ability to create the impression of an exclusive claim on religious sentiment and civilizational heritage….. This is precisely the kind of intelligent balancing act that moderate, nationalist and non-Islamist Arab political forces can successfully deploy against Islamist rivals in positive campaigns that emphasize what they have to offer their electorates.
And third, the vote can and should be seen as a repudiation of foreign, and especially Qatari, influence in Libya. Qatar spent a great deal of money backing the Libyan uprising, and conventional wisdom at the time of the fall of Moammar Qaddafi held that it was positioned to be a kingmaker in the country. Libyan resentment over this presumptuousness is reflected in the election results. Since Libya has its own growing petroleum income, it enjoys relative economic independence and cannot be held hostage to foreign aid.
“Jibril’s coalition was pitted against Islamist groups, including the party affiliated with Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood,” writes Isobel Coleman, director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative at the Council on Foreign Relations:
However, as I wrote last week, identity issues largely define Libyan politics–and in an election involving a dizzying array of parties and well over 3,000 candidates, Jibril is a well-known leader with solid revolutionary credentials. Tribal affiliations are important in Libya, and Jibril belongs to Libya’s most populous tribe. Some speculate that women in particular supported his coalition. Jibril, a U.S.-educated Qaddafi-era official who taught at the University of Pittsburgh, has also downplayed his own and his coalition’s perceived secularism and liberalism, so Libyans’ support for Jibril does not necessarily signal their rejection of political Islam. Moreover, since the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood could not operate openly under the former Qaddafi government, it does not have the same presence and reach as it does in Egypt.
“The election is providing one thing only: legitimacy,” said Fadel Lamen, president of the American-Libyan Council. “Everything else, all the problems, all the challenges, will still be there the morning after.”
Those challenges include growing fissures that, in the words of one observer, “threaten to tear the country apart across lines of tribal, clan and criminal affiliation,” and have contributed to Libya experiencing the worst annual decline in the history of the newly-published Failed States Index.
The election will create new political leadership, but won’t change the balance of power between the central government and local militia, says analyst Jason Pack:
Regional bickering and wrangling will, no doubt, continue, but will those dramas play out with the most powerful armed groups – those of Zintan and Misrata – again using coercive means to secure important posts in the new government and potentially ruin it? Will enough of the framers of Libya’s new constitution favor federalism to derail the forging of national unity? Will they choose a presidential or parliamentary system? Neither the most informed outside pundits nor the Libyans themselves can state with any degree of confidence what the future may hold.
The absence of state institutions “and above all, a national identity, is perhaps the most lasting and pernicious legacy of the Gaddafi Jamahiriya,” analyst Sean Kane notes in Foreign Policy magazine:
In fact, Gaddafi’s spasmodic state of perpetual change was a deliberate construction. His populace was kept perpetually off kilter by the near constant reshuffling of cabinets, provincial boundaries and systems of administration. Street names, place names, universities, and even the names of the months were always in flux, creating an almost physical feeling of disorientation. This pious Muslim country even started fasting for the holy month of Ramadan on a different day from the rest of the Middle East.
Yet there are many signs that Libya is starting to turn the corner, says Dartmouth University professor Vandewalle.
“Schools and businesses are reopening. Ministries are being reorganized and are starting to make and implement policy,” he said. “Most importantly, the power of the militias is very slowly but inexorably being eroded.”
“It would be utterly impossible to construct in only a few months all the institutions of a modern, properly functioning state Gadhafi destroyed in his pursuit of statelessness for 42 years,” said Vandewalle.
“Building a state and a nation takes time, ideas, compromise and leadership — particularly difficult if, as in Libya, the social and political landscape after the civil war was essentially a tabula rasa, and none of those qualities now needed to construct a modern state were in demand during the Gadhafi period.”
Libya’s election results “are another indicator of how the very wide variety of conditions around the Arab world will result in political outcomes that vary significantly,” writes Rami Khouri, Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut:
Libya is noteworthy in the context of the Arab uprisings in that its people’s first order of business is not only to develop a credible and legitimate system of political governance, but also to revalidate the concept and identity of a single Libyan state that is recognized by all its citizens. The tragedy of most of the Arab world is that since its birth almost a century ago its citizens had little or no say in how their countries were formed, or how they were subsequently governed. Suddenly, today, tens of millions of people in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya (and other countries to follow) find themselves able to decide on these fundamental elements of statehood and citizenship.
The individual Libyan who goes to the polls can be motivated by different elements of his or her identity, such as tribal, ideological, religious or geographic sentiments, combined with their immediate interests or needs, such as security, jobs, income, or basic social services. The Islamic element of Libyans’ identity is strong, as it is across the region, though in some instances religious sentiments will be dominated by tribal allegiances that have a better chance of mobilizing political power and providing the community with those priorities of rights and needs that it articulates at any given moment. My guess is that because Libya is still addressing the most basic elements of state formation, for now tribe trumps religion in the aggregation of political power in the public sphere.
This complex matrix of individual identities and needs means that individuals will constantly evolve in their political behavior, especially in voting, and especially in volatile situations such as we are experiencing across the Arab world in transitioning societies. This has been most evident in Egypt, where tribal identity is weak or non-existent, but secular values, religion, and Egyptian and Arab nationalism are stronger. So the current battle in Egypt revolves around the military and the Islamists vying for constitutional legitimacy and political power.