Can Libya's Liberals and Islamists Get Along?

They came together to fight Qaddafi, but there are worrying signs that they might be less cooperative on, for example, drafting of the country's new constitution.

Mahmoud Jibril, leader of Libya's secular National Forces Alliance, at a July 8th press conference in Tripoli. (Reuters)

You might think, based on the headlines in the Western press, that Libya's July 7 vote delivered a resounding victory for the country's liberals. After all, political leader Mahmoud Jibril's National Alliance won 40 of the 80 seats reserved for political parties, while the Muslim Brotherhood got only 17 seats. But Jibril himself more than once declared his coalition to be neither secularist nor liberal, but simply nationalist and non-ideological. And many candidates in the Muslim Brotherhood, and in the other so-called "Islamist" parties, definitely did not fit the stereotypes of the typical bearded or veiled Islamists.

But axiom "all politics is local" is true in Libya as well, and what Jibril's candidates have most in common is not by any secular-liberalism or lack thereof, but deep local roots. It seems that in some urban areas, based on my conversations with people in Libya, that voters selected Jibril's candidate assuming he or she would share Jibril's views, only later discovering that this was not the case. Some local candidates seem to have bandwagoned on Jibril's name and popularity, without actually holding his liberal or secularist views. The same thing appears true of many candidates on the so-called "independents" list.

One of the first big questions for Libya, then, is whether Jibril can keep his large and ideologically diverse coalition together. The most obvious way, though not the most democratic, would be patronage and clientelism. This would not be liberal democracy that Libyans fought so hard for, but as ideological splits show and maintaining the coalition gets more difficult, it might be what Libyans get.

Islamist have expressed much disappointment at their poor showing in the elections, and that disappointment will likely fuel a heated debate within the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood. Brotherhood leader Mohamed Sawan has already begun taking internal criticism. Still, Islamists may seek to recruit or co-opt some of the many independent candidates who've won, so they may end up more influential than they now appear.

Libyan politics, then, are still fragmented and fluid; it's far too soon to declare victory for liberals or for anyone else. The political landscape is in some ways like the security situation, which is primarily enforced not by unified national army or police, but by a few dozen independent, locally organized militias. Civil society leaders were able to organize a recent meeting of the main political groups to find a common political platform and roadmap for Libya's transitional government. This sort of political prenuptial agreement was to include Jibril; Mohammed Magarief, leader of the first historical opposition group, the National Salvation Front; Mohamed Sawan, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood; and Abdulhakim Belhaj, leader of the Al Watan Party. But the day before the meeting was schedules, Jebril left Tripoli on what he said was a family emergency and all the other leaders, upset at the perceived insult, withdrew.

With more incident like this one, personal rivalries and feuds are playing a greater role in the political sphere. Libya's polity is facing challenges that would be daunting enough if even if everyone got along: the formation of a government, the reconstruction of the country, and determining the rules for drafting the constitution itself, much less actually drafting it. Yet the transitional leadership has been embroiled in a fight over which governmental body will even be in charge of writing the constitution. With the Libya struggling to resolve even these procedural matters, which are important but less ideological charged than the looming debates over the actual contents of the constitution, the newly elected government may have a harder time establishing the post-Qaddafi era than many observers think.

Of course, holding elections was a major step in the right direction for Libya, but the problems and the dangers on the path to democracy are still many. Libyans amazed the world in coming together to fight Qaddafi, but now that their common enemy is gone, they'll have to start working together, and sometimes that can be even harder.

Presented by

Karim Mezran is professor of Middle East and North African Studies at SAIS, Johns Hopkins University and a senior fellow at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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