Will the Libyan elections buck the 'Arab Spring' trend? |
Asharq Al-Awsat - 12 July, 2012
Author: Adel Al-Toraifi
The Greek historian Herodotus once said: “The new comes from Libya” and perhaps this is something that applies to the Libyan election results. Most observers were convinced that the Islamists would win these election, as was the case in Libya’s close neighbours Egypt and Tunisia, but the surprise of the initial results was that – according to the Libyan national electoral commission – the National Forces Alliance [NFA], headed by Dr. Mahmoud Jibril, is leading with the Islamist following behind.
At a time when the country is going through a phase of security instability, and witnessing the intense spread of armed regionalist and fundamentalist militias, the Libyans have been able to conduct fair elections. The outcome even expresses a popular tendency towards civil rule and unity, away from politicized religious slogans. It is true that there are those who voted for the Islamists, whether influenced by their slogans or for ideological motivations or reasons of self-interest, but the majority seemed closer to the model of civil democracy, or this is what we hope from reading the results.
Will this scene continue, or will armed militias return to the surface to stand in the face of the popular democratic option that the Libyans have pursued? In reality no one knows, Libya is a country emerging from decades of political lockdown, during which time the outside world’s knowledge of what was happening there was very limited. The majority – as it seems – have voted for Mahmoud Jibril based on his reputation and efficiency. Yet we know very little about Libya, and perhaps this is cause not to rush ahead when it comes to reading the Libyan scene, or indeed any of the experiences of countries that have witnessed popular uprisings. What seemed to be a massive Islamist sweep of the “Arab Spring” elections has suddenly stopped in Libya, and this poses a challenge for those writing and commentating on this phenomenon. What may seem today as a defeat for the religious currents may represent a lone example, and even the Libyan experience itself is not immune from deteriorating in the future. All we can say is that the events of the past sixteen months may have exposed the traditional view of what can be called “political norms” and historical analogies when it comes to the behaviour of Arab societies and their political regimes. Yes, we have confronted a troubled stage during which some traditional concerns appeared, but we may also see the emergence of new phenomena and experiences.
At the end of 2004, the US National Intelligence Council issued a report entitled “Mapping the Global Future 2020”. This was an appraisal of future global political shifts over the next 15 years, with the project focusing on the situation in the Middle East as one of its main themes. The report predicted a gradual increase in political participation rates across the Arab states, as a result of internal and external pressures, and that the Islamists would achieve high voting figures in future elections, threatening to replace some of the military regimes in the region. Despite the fact that the report discusses, at length, the scenario of an “Islamic caliphate”, or a “confederation of governments ruled by Islamists”, the experts at the time ruled this out for geographical reasons, such as ancient border disputes, regional security balances and global energy conflicts. They also believe this is unlikely for methodological reasons such as the differences between Islamist parties and movements in terms of their experiences and approach, and the fact that they compete with each other in almost every country. Perhaps the most significant prediction in this report – regarding the participation of Islamists in future elections – was that Islamist groups would transform and adopt a less radical inclination in the future, increasing their ability to adapt to existing systems of government, both politically and legislatively.
We are now in 2012, and some Arab regimes have fallen as a result of popular uprisings supported by the military, as in Egypt and Tunisia, or through foreign intervention, as happened in Libya. We have also seen a significant shift in the positions – I will not say the literature – of some Islamist parties. For example, the Ennahda movement in Tunisia used to oppose [Habib] Bourguiba's secular heritage, yet it suddenly announced prior to its election that it did not intend to change the laws it had opposed for almost three decades. The same thing happened in Egypt where the Freedom and Justice Party – the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood – abandoned its opposition to the peace agreement with Israel, having spent four decades previously campaigning against this. Likewise, the majority of the Salafi movement in Egypt decided to contest elections and accept the democratic process, regardless of the fact that it used to reject the western electoral model back when it was a violent movement, and did not believe in anything except fatwas issued from the ruler during its period of reconciliation with the former regime.
Are these changes permanent, or do they reflect a temporary pragmatic position dictated by current circumstances? Some argue that these parties and leaders are being forced to keep pace with the “revolutions” in order to achieve electoral gains, and that they will not be able to retreat from these positions in the future. However there are others who believe that we may see a return to fundamentalism once these parties and currents hold the reins of power, and at that time it would not be possible to change the situation with new elections. Indeed, we are truly passing through an ambiguous phase, and the Islamist parties may accept the democratic process and adapt to it, or they may resort to imposing themselves by force if they feel they could lose their new positions of influence.
For this reason I think it is necessary to differentiate between the circumstantial and the structural when it comes to interpreting the latest transformations, because confusing between the two can lead to hasty conclusions. Take for example the Libyan elections, where some imagine an NFA victory to represent a victory for the liberals and secularists at the expense of the Islamists. This is not necessarily true however, and according to some Libyan intellectuals, the victory of Mahmoud Jibril’s bloc could be due to several reasons: Firstly, Mahmoud Jibril chose to resign, as promised, from the Libyan National Transitional Council, thus distancing himself from the disadvantages of the transitional phase and becoming a “clean” electoral candidate, or at least one not associated with the negativities that accompanied the previous stage. Secondly, the NFA may include liberal figures or supporters of secularism, but it is also a broad alliance that includes Islamists and independents, and because of that its slogans of nationalism and unity were attractive to voters. Thirdly, Mahmoud Jibril can be viewed as a consensus candidate: On the one hand he was raised in Benghazi and some consider him to be the “righteous son” of the city that sparked the uprising, and on the other hand, he belongs to the large Warfalla tribe in Bani Walid, western Libya.
There are other points that are no less important. According to what is being reported by some Libyan intellectuals, the Islamists’ loss may be due to a reaction from the silent majority of Libyans, who have grown tired of the armed incidents over the past months and hence came out to express their opinion with huge electoral momentum in favour of stability, i.e. the NFA. The Islamists’ loss might also be due to their modern guise as “parties”, rather than groups, in a country where political parties were banned for over 60 years.
Furthermore, the Libyan elections witnessed voting patterns in certain areas based on tribal and regional affiliations. In Misrata, neither the NFA nor the Islamist parties won; rather the scene was swept by the “Union for Homeland”, which is led by a local figure.
As you can see, the initial results from the Libyan experience do not tell us much; we are experiencing a difficult labour and the conditions could change in moments. Any security disorder – such as the outbreak of armed conflict between militias – could ravage these early achievements. There are also structural dangers represented by regional divisions. For example, in Cyrenaica some are still demanding federal independence, and for the country to return to what it was like before 1963, the year federalism was abolished. There are tribes with cross border links in the south, such as the Tabu, whose reputation has been damaged by their relationship with the former regime, and hence they feel oppressed at the present stage.
There are also fears that other blocs of independent parties may limit the progress of the NFA, with reports suggesting that Jibril’s alliance has won 78 percent of the vote in the capital Tripoli, 56 percent in Benghazi, and is leading in Sabratha.
Amidst all this, hope seems to be hanging between Misrata and Sabratha, against the backdrop of all the turmoil that the region as a whole is witnessing.
Will the Libyans live up to the Greek words: “The new comes from Libya”?