Libya's forgotten elections
Despite the lack of media coverage, in a few days Libya is due to go to the polls in elections that hold all the keys to the country's future, writes Hassan Fathy Al-Qashawi
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A Libyan man living in Jordan shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote at a polling station in Amman on Tuesday
In spite of all obstacles, preparations for the elections of the Libyan National Congress are moving forward, defying the weakness of the central state and striving to avoid the mistakes of neighbouring Egyptian and Tunisian experiences.
Due to be held 7 July, these will be Libya's first pluralistic democratic elections since the monarchical period, yet they have received almost no coverage in the Arab media.
Some 2.5 million Libyans are readying themselves to elect a 200-member National Congress that will be tasked with appointing a temporary executive authority, electing a legislative authority and selecting a committee to draft a permanent constitution that will be put to a public referendum.
Many observers have predicted that the elections would be postponed due to the general state of chaos and tribal conflicts in many areas, such as Al-Zintan and Al-Kafra Oasis. However, like Egypt, which pressed ahead with legislative elections despite the events of Mohamed Mahmoud Street, and with presidential elections in spite of numerous problems, the current Libyan leadership remains determined to hold the elections on schedule.
To cancel them, indeed, would not only delay the establishment of a government that derives its legitimacy from the people and the revolution, but also severely damage an already fragile state, since Libya, at present, does not have a legitimate stabilising force such as Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which safeguarded the Egyptian state from collapse.
Libya faces far graver challenges than Egypt did in the run-up to its elections. Whereas in Egypt, a strong army, a recuperating police force, and coherent judiciary helped produce elections that were universally acknowledged for their integrity, in Libya the old army has collapsed and the nascent army is beleaguered by dozens of militias based on diverse regional, tribal and political affiliations, and these could sway the results if the ballot box, sew havoc in the polls, or force the cancellation of the elections altogether.
To compound matters, the Libyan judiciary is weak, having been long stunted by the Gaddafi regime that prevented the natural growth of this institution along with most other aspects of the Libyan state.
Even international monitors, if brought in, would face a far greater challenge than they did in Egypt. The central government does not have the capacity to protect them in Libya's far-flung territories. Nor would it necessarily have sufficient strength to apprehend and bring to account persons who threatened international observers. Recall that when representatives of the International Criminal Court (ICC) were detained in Al-Zintan, following the ICC ruling on Seif Al-Islam Al-Gaddafi, the temporary government in Tripoli was very slow to act due to its inability to control revolutionaries in that area.
Still, there is a certain degree of optimism that is inspired by the fact that local elections passed smoothly in many parts of the country. A case in point was Benghazi, the country's second largest city and the birthplace of the Libyan revolution, in which there was no sign of weapons during the polls and the results were accepted by all.
With regard to the political map in Libya in the run-up to the elections, the situation is not as dire as it could be. It appears that the Libyan electorate has fallen into the trap of the same type of polarisation that existed in Egypt, albeit less acutely. The good news is that this more conventional political polarisation is preferable to polarisations along regional and tribal lines, especially in a country that is still predominantly tribal in its social organisation and has long been prey to the ills of a regional divide between the east and the west.
Moreover, the signs so far are that this political polarisation largely transcends such tribal and regional divides. A notable exception is the boycott of the elections by most of the forces calling for the autonomy of Barqa (Cyrenaica). The boycott is indicative of the awareness these forces have of their low popularity in a region in which 310 political entities and lists are taking part in the elections.
One of the most important political forces in Libya is the Muslim Brotherhood who are clearly making a conscientious effort to learn from the mistakes of their Egyptian counterparts. The Libyan Muslim Brothers have been campaigning to build up a coalition of forces, called the Justice and Development Bloc, which aims to create a "national partnership". Although the Libyan chapter of the Muslim Brotherhood is considerably weaker than the Egyptian chapter, due to a variety of demographic, social and organisational factors, it has gained considerable impetus from Mohamed Mursi's victory in the presidential elections in Egypt, just as it had been damaged by the deterioration in the Muslim Brotherhood's reputation in Egypt before this.
One reason why the repercussions of the Mursi win are so strong in Libya is that the Egyptian revolution was a major inspiration for the Libyan uprising. As someone put it, the Egyptian revolution was at the heart of the Libyan revolution. From the outset of the Libyan revolution on 17 February 2011, Libyans have been keeping a close track on developments in Egypt, regardless of the immense problems in their own country.
This attention reached its peak during the Egyptian presidential elections and especially the run-offs. Libyan revolutionaries were deeply apprehensive of an Ahmed Shafik victory because of the negative impact this would have on all the revolutions of the Arab Spring, including their own. The anxiety over the fate of the Egyptian elections was so intense at one point that the Libyan revolutionary activist Hassan Bakkar, coordinator of the revolutionaries of Tobruk, a Libyan port city not far from the Egyptian border, vowed that if Shafik won he would lead a group of Libyan activists to stage a sit-in at Tahrir Square because, as he said, "The Egyptian revolution is our revolution."
The Justice and Development Bloc is vying with the Watan (National) Party for the Islamist vote in Libya, while the Libyan Islamists' major competitors are the liberals, in view of the ebb of the Arab nationalist trend in Libya because of its association with Gaddafi.
The most prominent of the liberal forces are the centrist National Front Party and the National Forces Alliance. The latter is a liberal umbrella coalition led by former interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril who is known to have a tense relationship with Islamists.
At the moment, both sides appear to stand an equal chance. Libyan society is generally conservative and not disposed to Westernised liberals, but nor is its conservatism the type that is ready to submit to Islamist activists.
It is interesting, in this regard, to consider general voting trends in the Arab and Islamic world. In most elections in these regions, Islamists fare better in the major urban centres, such as Istanbul, Alexandria or Algiers, than in rural or tribal areas. The recent presidential elections in Egypt are an exception, for the Muslim Brotherhood showed a sharp decline in Cairo and a noticeable rise in the more tribal or semi-tribal areas in Upper Egypt and in Sinai, which had long been bastions of the now-dissolved National Democratic Party.
Returning to Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood's electoral prospects are contingent on their ability to gain the support of conservative, non-Islamist forces, and especially the support of tribal leaders, who collectively are influential figures in Libyan society. At the same time, Muslim Brotherhood candidates will need to win over the youth of the Libyan revolution. This presents a more difficult challenge because the Libyan revolutionary youth were better organised and played a greater role in the revolution than other participants. They fought on all fronts and were instrumental in organising the revolutionary government during the long and bitter conflict against Gaddafi.
In all events, the question of who or what party will win in the forthcoming Libyan elections may still be academic. At the moment, other questions are more critical: Will the elections go ahead at all, and if so how? To what extent do they offer the last opportunity to avert civil war? Or, conversely, how great is the danger that the elections will mark the opening forays of what could become a civil war?