Wednesday, July 25, 2012

After the Storm: the Success of the Libyan Elections

In the run-up to the first Libyan elections in 42 years, news outlets speculated widely about the possible obstacles to a free and united Libya: federalist cries in the east, armed militias roaming unchecked, extreme and moderate Islamist parties entering the fray, and complaints by tribal leaders and independent candidates of unfairness. Yet in the wake of the actual voting, Libya seems to offer the world the rarest of all stories, one of success.

With a respectable 62 percent turnout reported by election officials and 94 percent of polling stations operating normally throughout the country according to head of the election commission Nuri al-Abbar, it seems that Libya has achieved a truly free and fair election. Only one death was reported during the voting and a few polling stations were burned, violence much below the level expected by analysts. As the results of the vote become clear, another shock was dealt to observers. Unlike in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt, Islamist parties failed to gain a majority in the general assembly. Instead, the liberal, reform-minded National Forces Alliance headed by the popular ex-interim PM Mohammed Jibril took 39 of the 80 seats reserved for political parties. In a turn away from the regional trend towards increased religion in government, Libyans have selected a moderately Islamic party to represent them, apparently choosing security over ideology.

While the actual design and function of the general assembly remain in the works while a constitutional committee works on a new constitution, the election itself marks a huge step forward for a nation that has not had an election since 1965 (an election in which political parties were banned). Western and Middle Eastern leaders alike have praised the Libyan transitional authorities for the admirable turnout, smooth operation, and overall transparency of the elections. As the Syrian conflict continues to dominate the headlines, the Libyan elections passed by quietly and almost unnoticed by the rest of the world, no easy feat in a region that has witnessed more turbulence following the overthrow of strongmen than preceding it.

In the few weeks running up to the election, no one could have predicted that things would go as smoothly or that the NFA would do so well, even in eastern provinces. Since the death of Muammar Gaddafi, there have been no easy answers to the problems faced by the country he left behind.  First among concerns has been the increasingly popular federalist movement in the east, or the region of Cyrenaica/Barqa. This oil-rich region, due to its connection with the former monarchy, was disenfranchised and abused under Gaddafi, fueling cries for autonomy once he was removed from power. At the time of his death, an International Republican Institute poll reported that only seven percent of eastern Libyans wanted a federalist state. Since, the movement has only become more popular as the National Transtional Council pulled back to Tripoli and took the center of government with it. Suddenly it seemed to many in the East that their region would once again be put aside for the traditional western center. Three thousand eastern leaders and citizens attended a March announcement by the Cyrenaica Transitional Council in Benghazi that the region was now independent from Fezzan and Tripolitana in the West. The move prompted protests by thousands in the west and a fatwa issued by Dr. Sadiq Al-Garyani, the head of the Libyan supreme council on fatwas, against federalism.

Libya’s regional situation is, on the surface, similar to that of Iraq: the three regions contain three distinct cultures and ethnic groups akin to Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the center, and Shi’ites in the south of Iraq. In Libya, the western region of Tripolitana is oriented to Maghrebi culture, the southern region of Fezzan to sub-Saharan African culture, and the eastern region of Cyrenaica to eastern Muslims. Due to the disproportionate oil wealth in the east, Libya also faces the issues of resource distribution and control that has plagued Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

While these issues have led (among other factors) to ongoing violence and unrest in Iraq, in Libya it seems that regionalism has been trumped by common concern for the country’s future in the latest elections. Even in the east where many predicted independent, regionalist/federalist tribal candidates would win the vote, the NFA came out with a distinct lead over all other political parties. Nor have the Libyans followed the examples of their North African Arab Awakening neighbors in electing Islamist parties. The NFA is liberal and somewhat secularist, and its main agenda appears to be securing the former militias and their weapons and stimulating the economy.

Indeed, it seems that security is the main concern on most Libyans' minds. In the same October 2011 poll by IRI, 33 percent of those reporting described weapons collection and security as the NTC’s top priority, over organizing a government (8 percent) and ensuring wealth distribution (4 percent). Faith in the NTC also ran high, with 84 percent “strongly supporting” the council. When tensions flared over the selection of the constitutional assembly, the NTC quickly announced that instead of appointing the assembly’s 60 members, a separate vote would be held for the citizens to select it instead. Unlike SCAF in Egypt, the NTC seems ready and willing to hand power over to the citizens of Libya and their elected officials as soon as it is able.

Part of NFA leader Mohammed Jibril’s appeal is that same willingness to step down from power when he could have just as easily consolidated it. He kept his promise to his countrymen and stepped down as interim Prime Minister as soon as Gaddafi had been captured and killed. His platform is one of demobilizing the militias (he wants to absorb former fighters into the security apparatus) and identifying the right balance between a strong president and strong parliament in the new government. Absent from his positions are Islamist issues such as female dress that make the West and Libyan liberals so nervous, as well as cries for retaliation against low-level Gaddafi-era officials. Instead of rhetoric that divides, his is one that aims to unite his seemingly fragmented people.

Of course there will be stumbling blocks as the government moves ahead and a constitutional assembly is put together; of course there will be challenges as the eastern federalist movement refuses to go away and weapons and militias are still widespread in the country. Tribal score settling remains a huge concern, as well as weapons collection, regional divisions, and other ethnic tensions. Yet overall, the picture of stability in Libya is one almost never seen in a country that has experienced such a radical change in regime. Often, when the strongmen fall, the systems they built collapse with them, leaving behind a vacuum of order and structure that is frequently filled by radical elements or power-seeking politicians just as bad as the dictators they replace. In Libya, a glimmer of hope remains. Should the new government be able to weather the storms ahead, they may just find the sought-after calm that follows.  

-Vicky Kelberer

1 comment:

  1. Great piece, Vicky. Thoughtful and with depth. And it's sad that such a miraculous recovery from a violent revolution is going almost unnoticed by the western press. Kudos.