Libya’s Momentous Milestone

by Elia Boggia on July 18, 2012

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“I think I’m actually crying,” confessed Mohammed as he returned from casting his vote, the black ink on his right index finger still wet and covered by a tissue. His sunglasses concealed his emotional state, but his tone of voice gave it away. The mere fact that Mohammed – a hip, 21-year old engineering student who prides himself on his rock-n-roll credentials and knowledge of English – would admit to crying is testament to the weight of this occasion.

On July 7, Libyans were called to express their patriotism in an unfamiliar way, taking part in a ritual only the oldest of citizens had ever experienced – the last time was in 1965 under King Idris. After a seven-month military struggle against forces loyal to Moammar Qaddafi and nine months of political limbo, citizens of this North African country voted for their representatives in the new General National Congress (GNC).

Libyans responded enthusiastically to this call. According to election authorities, 1.8 million voters out of the 2.8 million registered voters cast ballots on Saturday, a turnout of 65%. While there was some elections-related violence, the polling was conducted in a state of relative peace and order, with 94 percent of polling stations operating regularly, leading the head of the European Union assessment team to conclude that “nearly all Libyans cast their ballot free from fear and intimidation.”

“They went beyond expectations, from all perspectives,” explained Radhia Achouri, Director of Public Information and Communications for the United Nations Support Mission in Libya, in an interview with the Forum. “The High National Electoral Commission displayed professionalism at all levels, and the mobilization of the people to prevent any attempts to disrupt the elections calls for admiration.”

As officials announced preliminary results on July 12, it became clear that the moderate National Forces Alliance (NFA), led by the revolutionary movement’s first Interim Prime Minister, Mahmoud Jibril, had won a substantial victory.

The coalition dominated party preferences in Tripoli, Benghazi, the desert South, and even in the Eastern cities of Derna and Tobruk, viewed as strongholds for Islamic hardliners. The Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, the Justice and Construction Party (JCP), was widely expected to do well before the polls started but fell short. Similarly, the Al Wattan party, another Islamist group, failed to gain seats in many large constituencies, possibly due to its alleged Qatari ties.

These preliminary results are particularly significant given the apparent funding advantage the two main Islamist parties had over the NFA. While Jibril’s coalition was still rather visible, the JCP and Al Wattan dominated advertisement space around Tripoli in the weeks leading to the elections, with the former’s soaring golden stallion and the latter’s purple-themed campaign nearly ubiquitous around the capital and its surroundings.

The NFA’s victory comes with a strong mandate. The coalition was able to garner support across geographical lines and among people from opposing sides of last year’s conflict. Abu Slim, a heavily pro-Gaddafi Tripoli neighborhood, gave the NFA a smashing victory over the second-place JCP (60,052 to 5,099 votes), as did Benghazi, the cradle of last year’s uprising that eventually toppled the regime (95,733 to 16,143).

Yet it is also important to emphasize that these results only apply to the 80 seats allocated for parties in the GNC. The remaining 120 seats of the new congress are reserved for individuals elected in each district through a majoritarian system, and the allegiances of most of these candidates are unknown. The individual candidates’ true colors will therefore be a critical component of any post-election governing calculations.

Nonetheless, these momentous results have led many to wonder why the Islamists performed so poorly.

“In Libya, everyone is Muslim,” explained Mawa, a civil society organizer from Tajoura, a conservative area outside of Tripoli. “So there’s no need to vote for an Islamic party.” Reflecting a similar sentiment, an independent candidate recently told the media that he “didn’t fight a revolution and carry bloodied martyrs from the front line for Islamists to take over and close [Libya] off from the world again.” Some analysts also point to decades of brutal repression of religious extremists under Gaddafi as a disadvantage for the JCP and similar parties.

At the same time, English-language coverage of the election has often mischaracterized Jibril’s coalition as liberal and secular. While there are indications his religious beliefs are not as stringent as the views of the Islamic parties he bested in the polls, Jibril has publicly rejected both labels. He is known to be devout Muslim and has clarified that Islamic law should remain an important source of legislation in the new Libya, making the designation “secular” somewhat misleading.

Among the principal tasks of the GNC will be naming a prime minister and a cabinet to serve until full parliamentary elections take place next year. Originally, the new body also had the authority to appoint a 60-person commission to draw up the country’s new constitution. But, in a last-minute move to appease Eastern federalists unhappy with the distribution of the seats in the congress, the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) decided to strip it of this mandate the day before the elections. Clearly, this did not bode well with parties and individuals running in the polls, and the secretary-general of Jibril’s coalition has already said the unelected NTC “had no right to interfere in that way,” right when “the representatives of the people were coming.”

How the national congress and the outgoing NTC will handle the constitution writing could be a defining moment for how well Libya can transition from successful elections to a strong, functioning democracy. A legitimate government is necessary to face Libya’s looming challenges, starting with the urgent need to persuade the powerful militias currently in control of swaths of the country to lay down their weapons in favor of a national army.

But beyond all the politicking that lies ahead, the unavoidable divisions in a country building itself anew, and the herculean task of writing Libya’s first democratic constitution, the underlying significance of the July 7 vote should not be underestimated.

For Mohammed, the 21-year old hip engineer, there was more than just excitement for the act of voting behind his tears of joy. He spoke about his close friend who died next to him during a gunfight with Qaddafi forces last year.

“I thought of him, as I was voting. It somehow feels like I have honored him,” he said, his voice trembling.


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