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Global press review: Libya's elections

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Contrary to the precedent set by Tunisia and Egypt's elections, it appears Libya's Islamist parties will not win a majority in the first post-Gaddafi government.

While much of the world's attention on the region continues to be focused on the escalation of violence in Syria, Libya's election, although still not officially tallied, is an equally important chapter in the Arab Spring. Liberal and non-Islamist parties have often fared poorly until now. The language of the winning National Forces Alliance has suggested that it wants to build as large of a consensus as possible regarding decisions it makes while it leads the interim government and efforts to draft the new constitution. 

Wire service Reuters announced that Mahmoud Jibril's National Forces Alliance won the Libyan election, the first in a generation. Despite worries of violence and political instability deterring voters on election day, the vote was mostly peaceful and the results have been well received by most of Libyans and their political parties.

The moderate National Forces Alliance of wartime prime minister Mahmoud Jibril scored a landslide victory over rival Islamist parties in Libya's first free national election in a generation, partial tallies showed on Thursday.

Counts from across the North African country attested to a resounding defeat for the political wing of Libya's Muslim Brotherhood, bucking a trend of success for Islamist groups in other Arab Spring countries such as Egypt and Tunisia.

Final official results are not due until next week. But with a large majority of votes counted, Jibril's alliance had unbeatable leads in Tripoli, the desert south, and the eastern city of Benghazi, the cradle of last year's rebellion against 42 years of Muammar Gaddafi's rule.

"The people saw in Jibril an openness to the rest of the world and they craved this openness after being closed off by Gaddafi," Libyan political analyst Nasser Ahdash said of the Western-educated politician who became the face of last year's uprising.

Another Islamist group, the al-Watan ("Homeland") party of former Islamist militant Abdul Hakim Belhadj, failed to take off. Belhadj was even set to lose in his Tripoli constituency.

"We've got to reevaluate our performance and decide what kind of alliances we would like to make or to be a strong opposition by ourselves," party spokesman Anas Al-Fetory said.

No immediate comment was available from the NFA or Justice and Construction, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In Central Tripoli district, Jibril's alliance won 46,000 votes against 4,000 for Justice and Construction. He scored victories in three other Tripoli districts and an allied party won the fifth.

"I voted for him," oil worker Ayman Abuda, 35, said as he shopped for groceries in Tripoli. "I hope Libya now will have a good future. The results show that my choice was right."

Rivals now have the chance to appeal the vote before the result is declared final. Moreover, Jibril's nationwide wins will not automatically translate to a majority of the new 200-head assembly since the bulk of its seats have been allotted to independent candidates whose allegiances are hard to pin down.

That assembly is due to pick a prime minister and cabinet before preparing for full parliamentary elections next year. Speculation is growing that Jibril could emerge from the process as Libya's next leader - potentially as president if a new constitution chooses that form of government.

Jibril is playing down talk of his future role for now and has called for parties of all hues to come together for talks on forming a national unity coalition with a priority of rebuilding Libya.

The Economist looked at the progress Libya has made against the mounting odds it faced during and following its revolution against Gaddafi, arguing that while the process of democratization and centralization has not yet been completed in Libya, the future is certainly brighter for the North African country than it was two years ago.

It is bound to end in tears, said those opposed to Western engagement in Libya a year ago to get rid of Muammar Qaddafi. Arabs don't do democracy. Islamists will take over and have one person, one vote, just once. Secular liberals will sink under the sand. Corruption is endemic in the Arab world, whatever the system. Tribal animosities and jihadist fanaticism will keep violence simmering. The meddling of naive Westerners only makes things worse. Look at Iraq and Afghanistan, proof that bossy benevolence will fail.

Even now, with Qaddafi long dead, the doubters are asking questions, many of them reasonable ones. Isn't Egypt going wrong? Isn't Syria bound to be bloody and chaotic, whoever eventually prevails? And won't Libya be remembered as yet another wretchedly brief experiment in democracy?

The Arabs must be given the chance to disprove these prejudices. Their spring was always going to be messy and patchy. Periodic reversions to bleak midwinter will inevitably take place. In no Arab country can it be said that democracy is secure. But some, at least, are incomparably closer to the real thing today than they were when tyrants and autocrats ruled. Libya is an emphatic case in point.

On July 7th the country voted for the first time since Qaddafi's fall. The poll took place against a grim backdrop. After 42 years of dictatorship, the institutions of the Libyan state have been hollowed out. The habit of tolerance and pluralism will not easily be inculcated. The regime's collapse left a void that violent men, including sympathisers of al-Qaeda, are keen to fill. The country is awash with guns-about 20m of them, by some counts, in a country of 6m-plus people. Around 60 militias sprang up in the heat of the rebellion and its aftermath, many of them loth to submit to the rule of the new central authority. Some towns, such as Misrata, the country's third-biggest, seem determined to run their own affairs, whatever the government may say. The fringes of the country, where the Berbers and various poor blacker-skinned minorities live, seem especially unhappy. Indeed, bits of Libya may be tugged towards a Sahelian no man's land-a swathe of territories stretching as far as Mali in the west that may become a haven for bandits, zealots and Qaddafi exiles, all armed to the teeth.

And yet Libya's general election has so far gone remarkably well. It is early days: as The Economist went to press, it was not certain who had won or who would form a government that would most probably be a coalition. But it looked as if the party with the most votes was the one led by Mahmoud Jibril, a sensible modernising reformer who claims to be something between a secular liberal and a mild Islamist. He may seek to ally himself with the Islamist party closest to the Muslim Brotherhood, which was tipped to win the day but appears, according to early returns, to have come second.

More significant still, the voting and the count proceeded pretty smoothly and the losers generally seemed likely to accept the result with good grace. Almost as important, people in the eastern parts of the country around Benghazi, the cradle of the revolt against Qaddafi, where resentment against the supposedly undue influence wielded by the new rulers in Tripoli in the west has been strong, sounded equally keen to take part in the election-and have not, for the most part, cried foul. Moreover, an electoral surge of extreme Islamists, some with sympathy for al-Qaeda, especially in the east, entirely failed to occur. Mr Jibril's lot seem to have won in Benghazi too...

Jamie Dettner, an independent foreign correspondent, wrote, in an exclusive interview, about Libya's new leader and the optimism he has for starting a new era in Libya.

Even if some Libyans boycotted the polls, Mahmoud Jibril, leader of the centrist National Forces Alliance, whose political alliance of several smaller parties appears to have done well in the election, is not deterred by an arguably disappointing turnout-reportedly less than two thirds of the nation cast a ballot.

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast and BBC last night, his first with the international media since the polls, he said it is a matter of not "looking at the glass as half empty but half full." He says the election was a remarkable achievement, arguing that "1.7 million people voted. That's the most positive thing in a country where there is no real legacy of democracy whatsoever-this is something unbelievable. This is my focus, focusing on the half of the glass that's full."

Jibril avoided saying what role he will play in a coalition government. It isn't clear that he wants the prime minister's job, and there is no mention of a president at this stage in the road map that was laid out by the Constitutional Declaration, the only legal framework to guide post-Gaddafi Libya. He says he only wants a job that allows him to be effective.

He will need to maintain his upbeat outlook in the coming months.

The road ahead for anyone who leads Libya is going to be rocky. Jibril, a former economy minister in the Gaddafi regime and an economic adviser to several Arab countries, is reluctant to claim victory and is dampening down speculation that his alliance has won the majority of seats when it comes to the 80 seats in the assembly that the parties competed for.

Two things he emphasizes: his alliance should not be held responsible for media reports that it has won the majority of party seats, and he believes all parties should come together to form a coalition. The challenges ahead demand that, he said. Asked by The Daily Beast whether his alliance could form a governing coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction Party, he doesn't hesitate.

"Yes, of course, why not? As long as we can agree on certain objectives, I think why not."

The alliance will probably have no choice. While it may have won when it comes to party seats, possibly winning more than all the main Islamist parties combined, it remains unclear who will dominate the 120 seats that 2,501 individual candidates contended for. All the main parties did their best to pack the individual list of candidates with party loyalists, and Jibril's advisers concede privately that when all votes are tallied, the Muslim Brothers may have sneaked out ahead of the alliance and others in terms of individual candidates.

Hence, Jibril's careful language ahead of the results: he doesn't want to offend by boasting of victory, and he's positioning himself as the man who can form an effective coalition, something he started doing ahead of the polls by holding discussions with the Muslim Brothers and Al-Watan, another Islamist party, say his advisers.

Says Jibril, "What we need now is national unity."

A former economics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Jibril pulls no punches when it comes to how the country has been governed in the last nine months by the 102-strong National Transitional Council led by Mustafa Abdel Jalil, a former Gaddafi justice minister. He believes a small exclusive group of ideological extremists within the NTC has been controlling and manipulating it and doing a bad job as a result. "Once when meeting them, I said I thought the meeting was a joke."

Jibril was instrumental in forming the NTC at the start of the uprising, believing that "there should be body talking to the world." Neither Tunisian nor Egyptian rebels formed such an umbrella group. "That is why the revolution has been stolen in those countries early," he says. But the transitional leaders failed to take the action they should have, he says, and were too exclusionary, coming up with laws that weren't discussed. "People who started the rebellion felt excluded."

In the interview -- and in his careful public pronouncements in the wake of the elections -- Jibril comes across as a chess player cautiously playing the board and arranging the pieces. The challenges facing Libya along with the complex electoral system the NTC came up with that ensured no one party would have an overall majority dictates difficult navigation. Jibril has few hostages to fortune out there when it comes to ideology. "I don't believe in ideology, as simple as that. I believe ideology is some sort of prison. The new age should be one of creativity, one of initiative, one of risk taking. All of these things are the opposite of ideology," he says.

The one given is that as new laws are developed, they should have a "reference to Sharia," a demand of the Muslim Brothers as well. But even here he seeks to reassure. "Sharia law, when it was understood in the proper way, managed to create one of the great civilizations in human history. The problem is not with Sharia or Islam; the problem is with the interpretation of Sharia. When we turn Islam into some ritual, into a box, when we say ‘You do this, you are an atheist' or ‘You do this, and you are a believer,' this in not helpful to Islam."

Dettner later wrote another piece about the changed language of the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate party in Libya following news that it would be Jibril, and not them, dictating the terms of agreement in creating a new government.

What a difference an election can make. Before Libyans cast their votes in their historic first post-Gaddafi election, the rhetoric of politicians was civil, a point noted by European Union electoral monitors. But post-election that's changed, at least from one side.

Islamists have reacted badly to their rout last weekend at the hands of Dr. Mahmoud Jibril's centrist National Forces Alliance, which has taken the lion's share of the 80 seats reserved for parties in the 200-seat National Congress. Provisional final election results are expected Saturday, while a certified result comes next week. Libyan Islamists had not expected defeat amid a trend of Muslim Brotherhood success in neighboring countries swept up in the Arab Spring. Before the election they'd even engaged in coalition government negotiations with Jibril, thinking they would be the ones dictating the terms when votes were tallied.

Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Sawan now rejects any idea of a deal with Jibril. Raising the post-election temperature and offending Jibril's allies, Sawan has publicly branded their champion, who served as a planning minister to Muammar Gaddafi but broke immediately with the regime when the rebellion started, of being a former ally of the ousted dictator and the electoral choice of old Gaddafi loyalists. Supporters point out that Jibril wasn't a member of Gaddafi's inner circle, spent as much time as he could overseas advising other Arab governments, and saw his reform plans for Libya rejected by the deposed dictator.

Sawan's words are dangerous. Thuwars, or revolutionaries, in places like Misrata are deeply suspicious of the U.S.-educated Jibril, and Sawan's remarks are riling them up further. "His comments are alarming," says Omar Bakhet, a former U.N. diplomat working in Libya on a reconciliation mission for the European NGO International Democracy and Election Assistance.

"It is almost as though Sawan is encouraging a hit on Jibril," protests an Alliance adviser who requested anonymity. "They aren't the kind of things you should be saying when things are so volatile and every able-bodied male has a couple of Kalashnikovs."

What ordinary Libyans want, judging by what they said when asked at the polling stations, is to finish the revolution. For them that means improvements in their everyday lives, with modernized infrastructure and sweeping institutional and judicial reform. Above all, they want to feel more secure and for the militias formed during and since the uprising to disarm and disband.

But for others the past remains the focus. Revolution will be finished only when all vestiges of the Gaddafi regime and anyone associated with it have gone. "We should put on trial all the buggers, everyone who was involved with Gaddafi, even if it takes 10 years," says Abdul Rahman El Mansouri, a former political exile and Muslim Brotherhood supporter.

It will not be easy to persuade militias to disband with payback sentiments like those. Some militias are still hell-bent on wreaking revenge on regime loyalists or old tribal and ethnic foes, putting right, from their point of view, the wrongs of the past, some stretching back decades. Or as Abu Bakr, a militia commander from the hardscrabble mountain town of Zintan, puts it: "There were winners and losers in the war. How come politicians are saying, ‘Now we are equal'?" We won; they lost. Hard luck. We can do what we want with them now."

Despite the election victory of Mahmoud Jibril's National Forces Alliance, there are many issues that need immediate addressing in Libya. Yes, the election dampened the risk of violence in the country as the Libyans voted for the man and the party they saw fit for the job of rebuilding the country. But jobs and other opportunities must appear for members of Libya's 120 militias if people are to believe being a militia member is no longer the best way to secure a prosperous economic future. Without that alternative, Libya could very well have to forcefully disarm its militias to prevent the possibility of violence from them.

Jibril has appeared to understand the expectations his electorate have of him and also understands the needs for political unity at this time. His statements of including all political parties to form a sort of grand coalition are an unprecedented offer made by an Arab head of state, even within the already unprecedented nature of the Arab Spring.

Libya's Islamists would be wise in taking a proactive role in the interim government that will be responsible for authoring a new constitution for Libya and to put aside the bitter taste of loss for the greater good of all Libyans. There is always the next election to be won. If not, it will be a signal that they are not capable of peacefully pursuing their agenda in Libya's young democracy.

Saif Alnuweiri is a third-year journalism student studying at Northwestern University’s Qatar branch campus. He follows media and politics in the region, monitoring the course of the 'Arab Spring' uprisings as well as global politics more broadly. He has written articles and also served as the news editor of the branch campus’ student publication, The Daily Q.

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