In just eight months after the death of dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in Sirte, Libyans managed to do the impossible: host their country’s first national elections following more than four decades of tyrannical rule. The election, which saw 1,689,592 (62%) registered voters cast ballots across 1,467 polling stations on 07 July 2012, has been met with significant praise from the international community, with the European Union Election Assessment Team describing the poll as “efficiently administered, pluralistic and overall peaceful”. Official elections results are not expected to be released until at least 14 July 2012, however, at time of publication, Mahmoud Jibril’s moderate National Forces Alliance (NFA) has reportedly taken 54% of the vote, whilst Mohammed Sawan’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB)-backed Justice and Development Party (JDP) has garnered 12% of the vote, a severe loss for an organisation which Western media outlets widely predicted would win as much as “60%” of the seats in the 200-member representative body. Although on paper (at least within the papers of Western news sources) this looks like a landslide “victory for liberalism”, the reality is much different. For one, the NFA’s “landslide” win is overplayed, as the governmental system is set up purposefully to prevent any one party from having too much dominance. Secondly, although the West has deemed Jibril a “secularist”; Islamic law is still expected to play a major part in legislation. Furthermore, despite NFA’s win having been widely portrayed as a step forward for Libya’s democratic progression, Jibril is expected to face stiff opposition in the coming months.
NFA’s potential dominance
If Jibril’s NFA wins the majority of seats in the General National Congress (GNC), it will be a historic feat, as the country would be the first post-‘Arab Spring’ nation to break the Islamist trend. However, even if the NFA does secure victory, the structure of the new Libya prevents any one group from having significant influence, as the GNC has a ratio of 120 constituency seats and eighty party list seats. In practice, the election system effectively included two separate contests: one contest between 120 constituency seats which were for independent candidates, and another race between eighty lists seats for political parties. This means that whilst the NFA is expected to hold more influence within the party list seats (NFA officials have reportedly said they expect to win fifty-five out of a total eighty), the JDP could garner more support within the race for the individual constituency seats. Interestingly enough, this system was reportedly set in place for the specific purpose of preventing the highly-organised JDP from eclipsing opposition parties.
What is the NFA?
Whilst the Western media seems to look on in favour on the supposed landslide victory for a liberal political party, the situation is much more nuanced. To begin with, although the NFA has been described as a “political party”, it is perhaps more appropriate to characterise it as a coalition of fifty-eight separate political organisations, which are ultimately led by US-educated former NTC Prime Minister Jibril. Essentially the NFA ran as a “single political entity”, and fielded seventy candidates, making it the second biggest political organisation after the JDP, which fielded seventy-three candidates. A significant portion of Jibril’s support appears to have come from those who saw him as a tried-and-tested leader, a man capable of guiding post-conflict Libya into a modern democratic state. Indeed, according to Amer Abu Dhaway, a professor at Tripoli University, “a lot of Libyans voted for this man without even knowing who the rest in his alliance are”. Aside from Libya, Jibril also appears to have the support of the West, particularly the US, which sees the University of Pittsburgh graduate as a supporter of economic liberalisation, as well as a “serious interlocutor who ‘gets’ the U.S. perspective”. Within Libya, although Jibril’s support varied from city to city, (he proved more popular in Tripoli and Benghazi then in Misrata for example), he seemed to appeal to the overwhelming majority of Libyans, particularly the country’s large youth population (more than 59% of Libyans are under the age of thirty), many of whom had indicated that the Western media’s focus on Libya’s rival MB-supported JDP was “overblown”. Despite its perceived power, a number of Libyans were wary of the JDP’s focus on hard-line Islamism and were particularly concerned with reports that the party has been backed – financially and otherwise – by oil-rich Qatar, a country which has been criticised for meddling in Libyan affairs. This is not to say that Libyans voted for Jibril’s NFA because, unlike the JDP, he steered clear of Islamism. Libyans, it can be argued, are already confident in their Islamic faith, and they don’t need any one political party telling them how to practice their religion, what they are truly looking for is an adept leader. Likewise, Jibril also publically appears to be unflinching in his Islamic faith, as well as his desire to use religious law as a basis for the country’s constitution, albeit not the only source of inspiration. At a recent dig directed at the JDP, Jibril emphasised this position, “Do they think they are more Muslim than we are?”
Jibril’s potential roadblocks
Although Jibril’s NFA appears to have won the support from the majority of Libyans, he is expected to face considerable challenges from within the government. Besides opposition from leading cleric Ali Salabi (an individual, it should be noted, who is not popular among many Libyans) who called Jibril an “extreme secularist”, JDP head Sawan has already readied his “attack position”, having recently emphasised Jibril’s links to Gaddafi due to his previous stint as head of the National Economic Development Board. Sawan appeared to stretch Jibril’s links with the old regime even further, by declaring that “Jibril believes that Sharia can only deal with certain aspects of life…He is like Gaddafi in his views on Sharia”. Furthermore, a number of JDP members have also accused Jibril’s NFA of conducting unsavoury deals with militia commanders and remnants of Gaddafi’s regime in order to increase their numbers, a strategy which Sawan believes ultimately “tricked voters”. It should be noted that Sawan’s views do to not represent the vast majority of Libyans, with some calling him something of a “sore loser”; whilst others have indicated that the JDP may be better off kicking him out of the party.
What next for Libya and the NFA?
If nothing else, Jibril’s win has proven the naysayers wrong: despite assertions from pessimists who claimed that Libya would completely collapse in the wake of the conflict, the election has shown that its citizens can enjoy something they have not experienced in nearly half a century: freedom. However, this optimism should be met with caution. For one, the remarks from Sawan may indicate a future heated political battle, particularly as although Jibril has called for a “grand coalition” among all political groups, the JDP appears reluctant to participate. Another area of caution is the threat from extremists, either from Salafist militants, or from hard-line supporters of federalism. Lastly, but perhaps not least of all, Libyans wait in earnest as the NTC has yet to hand over authority, something it has promised to do either on 06 or 08 August 2012, amid rumours that current NTC president Mustafa Abdul Jalil may be reluctant to do so.