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Why Libyan elections bucked the Islamist trend

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It is testimony to Libya’s determination to make their revolution count that the elections went as smoothly as they did.

Rhiannon Smith
15 July 2012

On Saturday, July 7, Libyans proved to the world that their country is not the divided, conflict ridden, Islamist-friendly state that many predicted the National Congress elections would reveal it to be. On the morning of the elections queues formed around the block as voters old and young, male and female waited for their chance to vote. Voting stations were well organised, well staffed and in most cases well protected. Across the country there was an air of excitement, festivity and satisfaction as Libyans took part in their first free elections in over forty years. It was as if the whole nation was celebrating a wedding with the streets full of people singing, dancing and waving flags. In the east there were some setbacks when federalists, unhappy with the current structure of the National Congress, attacked voting stations and destroyed election materials, but in the end most Libyans were able to cast their votes.

Tunis

Libyans give victory sign with their fingers stained with ink after voting in the countries first free election in sixty years.

An impressive 65% of eligible Libyans voted, and the preliminary, partial results trickling out from the HNEC show that Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance (NFA) has scooped the majority of the party votes, with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party and Belhaj’s Nation Party trailing behind. This means once all votes are counted and final results released, NFA are likely to have a majority of the 80 seats assigned to political entities. The great unknown remains the 120 individual candidates whose allegiances have yet to be revealed, and who will be the deciding factor in forming a successful coalition which can lead Libya through the crucial coming months.

So why do NFA appear to have done so well, and why has Libya, a conservative country whose population is almost entirely Sunni Muslim, bucked the post-revolution Islamist trend which has seen Tunisia and Egypt elect the Muslim Brotherhood as their leaders of choice? For starters, it is important to remember that votes were not generally cast based on informed, ideological precepts, but rather based either on the merits of a handful of well known figureheads, or along tribal or family lines. Mahmoud Jibril earned himself respect, trust and admiration among many in Libya for his role in garnering international support for the rebels during the revolution, and he is seen as someone who has the experience and vision to lead Libya forward.  One of the main criticisms levelled at Jibril is that he played a role in the former regime, yet for many this is actually a positive. He is seen as someone who can unite the revolutionaries and Gaddafi loyalists under one flag, with another string to his bow being that he is from the Al-Warfalla tribe, one of Libya’s most populous tribes. NFA’s success has mainly been attributed to Jibril’s leadership.

Despite Jibril’s popularity, many observers expected the two main Islamist parties to come out on top, especially given the recent successes of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya’s closest neighbours. However, Libya’s political history, culture and attitude is different to that of Egypt and Tunisia, as was their revolution, so it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that Libya doesn’t seem to have followed suit.

In Egypt and Tunisia Islamist parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood have a long history and solid support base, whereas in Libya they were never given so much as an inch of ground in which to put down roots. Gaddafi’s political legacy is one of intense suspicion for political parties and this may have been compounded rather than allayed by the Islamist successes on Libya’s borders. Libyans are fiercely patriotic and do not like the idea of foreign interference or influence. The Muslim Brotherhood and Belhaj’s Nation Party are seen as the puppets of Saudi and Qatar as this is where much of their funding and ideology comes from, and this seems to have damaged their reputation among the Libyan population. What’s more, despite being a deeply conservative, Muslim country, religion is still very much a private affair in Libya, and Gaddafi ensured it never became a political one. As a result, many Libyans resent the idea of politicians presuming to tell the population how to follow their own religion.

Forty years living in a political void has meant Libyan candidates and voters alike were starting from square one in these elections in terms of experience, knowledge and expectations, and it is testimony to Libya’s determination to make their revolution count that the elections went as smoothly as they did. The next test is forming the constitutional commission and drafting a constitution which will determine the shape of Libya’s political future. I am optimistic that Libya will rise to this challenge.

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