Libya and Islamism: the deeper story

The interpretation of Libya's elections of July 2012 as a victory for secularism is misleading. A more nuanced reading of the vote must accommodate the reality and potential of Islamism, says Alison Pargeter.

The result of Libya's legislative elections on 7 July 2012, held just short of nine months after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi's regime in October 2011, was hailed by many media outlets and policymakers as a victory for secularism in the country and the region. The headline figure - thirty-nine seats in the "national general congress" won by the National Forces Alliance (a broad-based liberal coalition), against seventeen by the Justice & Construction Party (Libya's version of the Muslim Brotherhood) - was read with near-jubilation as evidence that the local Islamists had failed to replicate the success of their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia, and that the "Islamist axis" unleashed by the Arab spring of 2011 had been punctured.

 A closer look, though, suggests that the mix of joy and relief was misplaced. For if the Libyan Brotherhood and the other Islamist parties that contested the elections did not achieve the victory they had hoped for, the notion that the elections were a triumph for secularism is misplaced.

The most basic argument for suspending judgment about the result is that a complete picture has yet to emerge. This is because of the structure of the country’s election law, which sought to ensure that no single party could gain a ruling majority: only eighty of the 200 seats in the congress were reserved for political parties, with the remaining 120 seats allocated to individual candidates. Both the National Forces Alliance (NFA) and the Justice & Construction Party (JCP) are trying to woo these individual seat-holders to their side, but the latter are giving few signals of their intention and it is not certain that they will choose to ally themselves with either side.

This may begin to become clearer on 8 August, when the congress holds its first meeting. This session will be largely ceremonial, its purpose being to allow the existing authority - the National Transitional Council (NTC) - formally to transfer power to the new body. But the congress’s next task will be to vote for the head of the congress (the equivalent of speaker) and for the prime minister. Only then will a true inkling of the real orientation of Libya’s new legislative body emerge. In short: don't dismiss the Islamists just yet.  

Mahmoud Jibril’s alliance  

The view of the election as a triumph for secularism owes much to the National Forces Alliance's position as the largest single party, and the reputation of its leader, Mahmoud Jibril - a former planning minister in the Gaddafi regime - as liberal in orientation. But it is wrong to describe the alliance as a purely secular grouping. The NFA comprises some fifty political entities and over 240 NGOs and includes a broad array of individuals, some of whom are of an Islamist persuasion. Among the latter is Sheikh Abdelatif al-Mehelhel, one of Tripoli's most prominent Islamic scholars, whose name has been touted by some as a potential candidate for the post of head of the congress.

Moreover, even the liberal-minded Mahmoud Jibril is senstive to the conservative nature of Libyan society, and made a strong appeal to traditional and conservative values during his election campaign - to the extent that the Muslim Brotherhood felt he had invaded their territory, and even accused him of inflating his Islamist credentials in order to win votes.  

This accusation is as unfair as the international portrait of Jibril as a secular man is misleading. For all that the international media are jubilantly hailing Jibril as, it is a label he strongly rejects. Jibril himself has stated: "In all my life, I have never described myself as secular. I never believed in it. I never talked about secularism. I was accused and given this label by some people. Because secularism in the minds of Libyans is tantamount to atheism, the purpose of that accusation was to try to portray me as an atheist." Indeed, secularism is broadly rejected in Libya and is viewed as something alien to local traditions. Thus even Jibril’s liberalism and his assertion that religion should be relegated to the personal sphere had to be packaged in a way that sat comfortably with Libyans' conception of themselves and their society.

Moreover, Jibril is still a religious man, even though he skilfully tapped into the popular mood by focusing his election campaign on economic development rather than the more esoteric preoccupations of identity and ideology (which the Brotherhood erred by getting entangled in). Jibril supports the idea that the country’s new constitution should be based upon sharia law, and his alliance stated in its charter that sharia should be the main source of legislation. In fact he and it had had no choice: for while in Tunisia or Egypt, fierce debates rage about the extent to which Islamic law should serve as a framework for the state; in Libya there is a broad consensus that it should underpin the new constitution.  

The individuals' choice

There is an even more importantl reason for caution about reading the electoral result as a secularist victory. The Justice & Construction Party may have come second in the party lists, but they may still form a major bloc in the new congress. Its success, as with the NFA, depends largely on the response of individual seat-holders to its desperate efforts at persuasion. The individuals comprise a mixed and somewhat random bunch - tribal sheikhs, businessmen, lawyers, speakers of mosques and other civic personalities - voted in largely because of their local connections and reputations. Many are traditional in orientation and are known for their religiosity. A Libyan analyst argues that some 80% are of a conservative and Islamist bent (see Senussi Beseirki, Intihkhabat Al-Muatama Al-Watan Al-Libi Wa Khiyarat Al-Kutal Siasiya Al-Faiza [The Election of the Libyan National Congress and the Choices of the Winning Political Blocs], Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies, 23 July 2012). This will not automatically translate into an attachment to the Brotherhood, but this will certainly happen in some cases.  

In fact, the Brotherhood fielded a number of its members as individual candidates in the election, some of whom won their seats. This will clearly bolster the movement’s standing in the congress. The Brotherhood also appears to have had some success in winning over some of the independent individual seat-holders, though exact estimates vary. A senior Brotherhood member whom I interviewed by telephone in July 2012 confidently predicted a gain of at least twenty-four individuals, giving it a total of forty-one seats in the congress.

But other estimates are considerably higher. On 2 August, Libya's Al-Youm news-site predicted that the Brotherhood and its allies might achieve eighty seats and the National Forces Alliance only seventy. This is probably an exaggeration, but a major push by the Brotherhood and other Islamist forces in the country is underway to try to deny Jibril a majority. It's questionable whether they can succeed. The Islamist camp was deeply divided prior to the elections, with even those of a similar ideological bent breaking off to form their own parties. The JCP, for example, was unable to bring under its wing the influential Islamist scholar, Ali Al-Salabi (whose ideological orientation is very close to the Brotherhood) and his ally, the former jihadist Abdelhakim Belhaj, who established the Al-Watan party (which did not win even one seat). The attempt by the JCP and the two men to create a joint party failed, a Libyan Islamist I interviewed in London in July 2012 told me, when neither side was willing to relinquish control to the other. 

The ability or otherwise of these Islamist groups to cooperate in the interests of excluding Jibril’s NFA has yet to be seen. It may even be that some independent candidates will form a third bloc of their own, making them the kingmakers of the new congress. That aside, it is still likely that that the Justice & Construction Party will end up as a significant bloc in the new body and that it will close at least some of the gap between it and its so-called secular opponents.

The future of power

Thus, for all that the Libyans chose not to vote en masse for Islamism in the elections, the Brotherhood may yet become a more potent force in the future. But for that to happen it will need to address five problems.

The first is the inheritance of a far lower base than its counterparts in Egypt and (to a lesser extent) Tunisia. The nature of the former regime, which was intolerant of any unsanctioned political activity and prohibitive of professional organisations and even charitable work, mean that Libya's Brotherhood lacks the institutional structures and the grassroots membership that elsewhere have acted as a foundation for influence.

Indeed, the Brotherhood was so emasculated by the Gaddafi regime that it remained largely a movement in exile, especially after 1998 when almost all its members inside the country were arrested. Thus the Justice & Construction Party - with just eighteen days to campaign - was unable to draw on pre-existing networks in the country, as its Islamist counterparts elsewhere were able to do.

The second is that Gaddafi spent forty years in power denouncing Islamists as extremists and warning repeatedly that they were plotting to subvert the country. Even after the regime has gone, some of this anti-Islamist sentiment has stuck. A recent poll undertaken by a Libyan research centre finds that 40% of respondents who did not vote for the Islamists made that choice because they were frightened of them; 45% because they didn’t know them; and 8% because they weren’t convinced by their election programmes. This suggests it will take time for the Brotherhood to make itself known to and build trust among Libyans (see Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi [Yale University Press, 2012])..

The third problem is that the natural suspicion of ideology in Libya following four decades of "Gaddhafism" may make the Brotherhood less appealing to the Libyans.

The fourth is that tribes comprise a powerful element in Libya, and increasingly so in the political arena; this will work against the Brotherhood.

The fifth is that the Brotherhood’s image is somewhat tarnished by the fact that during the latter years of Gaddhafi’s rule it entered into dialogue with the regime. Although this was largely a bid to secure the release of their members from prison, it has to a degree sullied its reputation; as has the fact that the movement was largely absent from the revolution itself.

So the Brotherhood has a long way to go to win over the Libyans. At the same time, the Brotherhood has always been prepared to take the long view and patiently to work at the grassroots level in the hope of bringing people to its ideology. It is likely, then, that the Justice & Construction Party is already focusing on Libya’s next elections, due to be held within one year (see "Libya: a hard road ahead", 8 March 2011).

If Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance fails to deliver on its election promises, which is not unlikely given that the real control in Libya continues to lie  with the increasingly commanding local power-brokers, then the Brotherhood may well perform better next time around. Whatever happens on 8 August and beyond, it cannot be assumed that Libya has turned its back completely on Islamism - either now or for the future.

About the author

Alison Pargeter is a political analyst of the middle east and north Africa, specialising in political Islam and radicalisation. Her academic positions have included senior research associate at the department of politics and international studies (Polis) at the University of Cambridge. Her books include The Muslim Brotherhood: The Burden of Tradition (Saqi, 2010); The New Frontiers of Jihad: Radical Islam in Europe (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); and Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi (Yale University Press, 2012)

Read On

Alison Pargeter, Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi (Yale University Press, 2012)

Alison Pargeter, The Muslim Brotherhood: The Burden of Tradition (Saqi, 2010)

The Tripoli Post

Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP)

Libya Herald

Foreign Policy

Dirk Vandewalle, A History of Modern Libya (Cambridge University Press, 2005) 

Africa Confidential

Hisham Matar, In the Country of Men (Penguin, 2007)

Luis Martinez, The Libyan Paradox (Columbia University Press, 2007)

More On

Alison Pargeter is a political analyst of the middle east and north Africa, specialising in political Islam and radicalisation. Her academic positions have included senior research associate at the department of politics and international studies (Polis) at the University of Cambridge. Her books include The Muslim Brotherhood: The Burden of Tradition (Saqi, 2010); The New Frontiers of Jihad: Radical Islam in Europe (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008); and Libya: The Rise and Fall of Qaddafi (Yale University Press, 2012)