Why the Islamists faltered in Libya

Libya has a long way to go before it can be considered a success story. But the relatively poor electoral performance of Islamist parties there is a good indication that it has a fighting chance

The JCP has not performed as well as other Islamist parties in the region
Ghaffar Hussain
On 23 July 2012 09:46

Much to the surprise of Middle Eastern and international observers, Libya seems to be bucking the post-Arab spring trend of electing Islamist parties into power. In fact, Islamist parties have performed quite poorly in conservative Libya's first ever free and fair elections, with most Libyans, including the religiously conservative, opting to vote for more liberal parties.

The nationalist/liberal leaning National Forces Alliance (NFA), led by former Libyan Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, has won an impressive 39 out of a possible 80 seats, whilst the Muslim Brotherhood affiliated Justice and Construction Party (JCP) only won 17.

Another 120 seats were reserved for independent candidates  - a mixture of lawyers, businessmen, and activists whose allegiances are difficult to pin down.

One of the reasons why the Muslim Brotherhood did so well in Egypt was because under Mubarak’s rule, despite being officially outlawed, the Brotherhood was allowed to operate as a movement doing charity work and building support networks. This was all part of Mubarak’s deeply flawed plan that sought to present the outside world with the binary – ‘it’s either me or the dreaded Islamists’.  

Hence, when post-Mubarak political campaigning started, the Brotherhood had a natural head start. 

In Libya, the JCP had no such advantage. Under Ghaddafi's rule all expressions of political pluralism and traces of civil society were brutally crushed and hence the Islamists, just like everyone else, had to start from scratch.

Furthermore, Muslim Brotherhood chapters across the Middle East have benefited tremendously from Saudi and, more recently, Qatari largesse. Oil rich Gulf States never did like the nationalist/secular leaning dictatorships that dominated North Africa and, therefore, supported Islamist forces in the region.

Libyans, on the other hand, despite welcoming Gulf money in support of their insurrection against Ghaddafi, are very sceptical of outside interference. Islamist parties that are in receipt of Gulf money are, therefore, viewed with suspicion and seen as agents of outside powers with nefarious intentions.

Libyans have always had a strong desire to exert their independence, both from their neighbours and from international powers. They certainly don’t wish to be swallowed up into some sort of regional Brotherhood-led political bloc running from Tunisia to Egypt.

Libya is also a deeply tribal society and many Libyans most likely voted along tribal rather than ideological lines. Jibril, being an experienced and shrewd political operator, was well aware of this and hence ensured that most major tribes were represented in his party.

However, tribalism is not the only reason why Libyans didn’t vote along ideological lines. At a time when the country is practically recovering from civil war and powerful, armed militias still roam the streets, what Libyans value more than anything else is stability and competence.

Jibril is a man with a track record.  He has a Master’s degree in Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh, served as Head of the National Planning Council under Ghaddafi and admirably led the National Transitional Council (NTC) during the uprising. He is also internationally renowned and viewed as capable of uniting Libya and re-building its economy.

There is also one final factor worth mentioning. As well as being deeply tribal, Libya is also a deeply patriarchal society. In spite of Ghaddafi being comically flanked by female bodyguards during his foreign visits, under his rule women suffered a great deal. It therefore came as no surprise that women came out to vote in large numbers.

Libyan women, despite being religiously conservative, are deeply suspicious of Islamist organisations that threaten their nascent attempts to gain more rights. Women voting in large numbers would, therefore, have impacted the Islamist vote negatively.

This is especially true since polygamy, which was restricted under Ghaddafis rule, is more likely to be re-introduced in Libyan society if Islamist parties have their way and, unsurprisingly, most Libyan women are not too keen on becoming a third or fourth wife.

Libya still has a long way to go before its economy is restored, infrastructure re-built and country re-united. The electoral success of the highly diverse and representative NCA with Jibril at the helm has given the country the best possible chance of achieving its potential.  

However, as with all things in the MENA region, don’t expect the ride to be smooth. 

Ghaffar Hussain is a counter terrorism expert and Contributing Editor to The Commentator

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