Al-Ahram Weekly Online   12 - 18 July 2012
Issue No. 1106
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Gamal Nkrumah

Libya's liberal leap

General elections in Libya were hailed as a landmark, a leap forward, and preliminary results claim that militant Islamists were elbowed out by liberals, notes Gamal Nkrumah

The biggest spur to democracy in Libya would be to remove uncertainties about the militant Islamist factor. The post-Muammar Gaddafi Libya has its back to the Sahara desert and the rest of Africa and looks out to the open sea and Europe across the Mediterranean. Yet Libyans, it appears, according to preliminary results of last Saturday, feel somewhat encircled, claustrophobic so to speak, but the 1.6 million registered Libyans who cast their votes will have their say.

Click to view caption
An electoral commission worker helps a voter dip his finger into ink before he casts his vote in a polling booth in Sirte, Saturday. Libyans are choosing a 200-member assembly which will elect a prime minister and cabinet before laying the ground for full parliamentary elections next year under a new constitution. Preliminary results showed Libyans' rejection of Islamists' rule

Turn to face the waves, forget about the desolation of endless sand dunes, the favourite haunt of the late Libyan leader where he pitched his trademark tents, and the post-Gaddafi Libya looks like a place engulfed by myriad bracing possibilities, both exceedingly good and pretty bad.

Leave the post-Gaddafi Libya to stew in its own juice. The bulk of the Libyan population and registered voters are in the country's second largest city Benghazi where the spark for the anti-Gaddafi uprising was first ignited and in the Libyan capital Tripoli in the west of the country and the third largest city Misrata, also in the west.

If all goes to plan, Libya will make history this week. Turnout throughout the country was above 60 per cent. In Benghazi it was as high as 70 per cent, and in Al-Bayda, the hometown of the leader of the Transitional National Council (NTC) Sheikh Mustafa Abdel-Jalil it was an impressive 80 per cent. Both Benghazi and Al-Bayda are in the supposedly disenchanted east of the country, Cyrenaica, the major oil-producing region of Libya, where separatists favour secession and federalists desire a greater percentage of seats in the National Assembly.

Listen to world leaders and it would be easy to conclude that all will be well in Libya. And, let us hope so. Libyans deserve better. "On behalf of the American people, I extend my congratulations to the people of Libya for another milestone on their extraordinary transition to democracy," United States President Barack Obama issued a statement in Washington. "Landmark," remarked British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

And, yet astonishingly for a country long castigated pejoratively as a wasteland of desert-dwellers, the economy and capitalism, and not religion, dominate Libyan post-Gaddafi politics.

An uneasy peace treaty with Israel does not encumber Libya so let sleeping dogs lie. And, who says that the Libyan people are either incompetent or unable to stand up to the vested interests of neocolonialists? An estimated 3,707 candidates are standing in 72 constituencies, or districts throughout the sprawling North African country.

The pressure from globalisation is as intense in Libya as it is in Egypt or Tunisia, and the country is cushioned by an enormous reservoir of one of the world's best quality oil and natural gas.

Be that as it may, denying that an ideological battle needs to be fought is the first step to losing it. Religion is more within the personal realm in Libya than it is in the political. Or, at least that is what the preliminary results of the polls suggest.

The two major Islamist parties are Al-Watan, the Nation, and the Justice and Democracy Party affiliated to Libya's influential Muslim Brotherhood. But neither it seems scored well in Tripolitania, western Libya.

Both Al-Watan and the Justice and Democratic Party garnered enough votes in eastern Libya, Cyrenaica, and in Misrata areas know to be particularly resentful of the Gaddafi regime. These were likewise areas that suffered heavy bombardment by pro-Gaddafi militias in retaliation for their perceived treacherous policy towards the ancien regime.

Militant Islamism that played a critical role in toppling Gaddafi unsurprisingly was at the forefront of the march towards Western-style democratisation and self-determining autonomy along tribal lines. The evolution of Islamist militancy in Libya has produced an extraordinary variety of ideological strands. However, none presumably appears to have impressed the bulk of Libyan voters. Libyan society, it seems, needs to be assured that the Islamists must ensure that they are better equipped to make moral judgements than the Gaddafi regime had.

A survivor of the Soviet-Afghan War, and a veteran jihadist fighter of the so-called Arab Afghan guerrillas affiliated to Al-Qaeda, Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, emir of the now defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, currently leads Al-Watan Party. His brother Younis Belhaj was killed during the joint NATO-Libyan anti-Gaddafi drive to storm the Gaddafi stronghold of Bani Walid, southeast of Tripoli. Belhaj, himself, survived the political upheavals that followed the fall of the Gaddafi regime and rose the ranks to become the head of the Tripoli Military Council.

This was a perfect time to take a risk in Tripoli, come what may. With the Islamists, including Al-Watan Party, Belhaj is now like a wounded boxer. But he has shown that he can endure big political blows.

Belhaj, an anti-Gaddafi militia that continued to closely cooperate with Al-Qaeda -- and perhaps not surprisingly -- found it convenient to collaborate with NATO forces during the drive to oust Gaddafi.

Belhaj exemplifies the perplexing paradox of former Al-Qaeda affiliates cooperating closely with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the Arab Spring. Belhaj quickly realised that 2011 was a particularly dangerous and defining year for Libya and most other North African nations.

A civil engineer by training, and incidentally a graduate of Gaddafi's Al-Fateh University, Belhaj assumed the nom de guerre of Abu Abdallah Al-Seddiq in Afghanistan, staging attacks on unbelievers from his base in Jalalabad, and later in Libya, too, assumed the mantle of militant Islamist leadership.

Tracked down by the CIA and after a tip-off from the British Intelligence M16, Belhaj was arrested in Kuala Lumpur Airport, Malaysia, in 2004. He was flown soon afterwards to the Thai capital Bangkok, where he was placed in the custody of the CIA, and from where he was transferred to Libya.

Gaddafi was delighted by the repatriation of Belhaj and promptly cast him in the notorious Abu Selim Prison. As fate would have it, it was Gaddafi's son and heir apparent Seif Al-Islam who convinced his father to release Belhaj and scores of key militant Islamists in a so-called "de-radicalisation" backdoor deal. Belhaj was "no longer a danger to society", Seif Al-Islam explained.

Former Spanish premier Jose Maria Aznar believes that Belhaj was implicated in the 2004 Madrid terrorist blasts claimed to be the work of Al-Qaeda.

NATO obviously has no qualms about being in cahoots with Al-Qaeda. Belhaj fled Gaddafi's Libya in the early 1980s and after a sojourn in Saudi Arabia made it to Afghanistan where he found favour with the legendary leader of Taliban Mullah Omar. However, he returned to Libya in 1992 to carry out a jihad operation against the secularist Gaddafi. One way of dealing with difficult questions of whether they are lackeys of Western powers is to avoid such queries altogether. As the Islamists become smarter and more sophisticated they are bound the Libyan electorate will present them with ethical dilemmas.

The best-known set of guidelines to Libya's prospects for political stability is to allocate responsibilities to the Libyan legislature. Some 80 seats are reserved for party candidates and 120 seats are open for competition between independent and individual candidates.

The National Forces Alliance (NFA) headed by Mahmoud Jibril Al-Warfelli -- he hails from Libya's most populous tribal grouping, the Warfellas -- has so far garnered the most votes, especially in the west, Tripolitania, and the south, Fezzan. This has pivotal political implications for the decision-making systems of the post-Gaddafi Libya.

"We extend an honest call for a national dialogue to come all together in one coalition under one banner," Jibril announced soon after the preliminary results were out. "To reach a compromise, a consensus on which the constitution can be drafted and the new government can be composed," Jibril added. "There is no loser or winner at all. Whoever is going to win, Libya is the real winner of these elections," Jibril summed up.

"The first winner is the Libyan people," election commission chief Nuri Abaar concurred with Jibril.

Many recommendations for structural reform and liberalisation will scarcely be more palatable to the vast majority of ordinary Libyans. Yet, Jibril was a protł©gł© of Seif Al-Islam Al-Gaddafi and an advocate of economic and political liberalisation and privatisation during the Gaddafi days.

Jibril was head of the National Planning Council of Libya under Gaddafi and was later chief of the National Economic Board of Libya. His association with the ousted Gaddafi regime and his reconciliatory pronouncements during and after the demise of Gaddafi raised eyebrows especially as Jibril was against revenge killings and the mistreatment of prisoners of war. He was under suspicion by many in the NTC of harbouring Gaddafi sympathies. However, the fact that his liberal NFA garnered a large number of votes means that many Libyans sympathise with what they see as his moderation, especially as far as the political reconciliation process gets underway.

Mahmoud Jibril has clearly won hearts and minds with his secularist liberalism. Libya is a country where traditionally Islam was characterised by moderation and the proliferation of Sufi brotherhoods that are not particularly enthused with the strict interpretation of the Sharia laws as advocated by Salafis and the Wahhabi sect prevalent in Saudi Arabia. Libya needs deep and prolonged structural reforms. And, Libyans understand fully the implications.

Some Libyans think of Mahmoud Jibril as a political turncoat. Most Libyans now are convinced that some of Gaddafi's ideas are unworkable.

An unholy alliance is in the offing. If Jibril manages to incorporate moderate Islamists into his cabinet, assuming that he is called upon to preside over the new post-Gaddafi, post general election Libya, then he will also have to incorporate black-skinned Libyans. This is a racial group that has suffered untold indignities and terrible retribution in the form of torture and discrimination in the wake of Gaddafi's gruesome assassination. The sooner the questions of moral and ethical uprightness and social justice that Jibril raises are addressed, the easier it will be for him to instill a sense of democracy in Libya.

Flush with cash from the oil-rich Arab Gulf states, the Islamists are still going to garner considerable gains.

Impecunious, and pitifully so, Libya's black-skinned population are now Libya's underdog. Thousands have enlisted in the pro-Gaddafi Green Resistance militias. Gunfire pierces the eerie night quiet of post-Gaddafi Libya. The perfectly legalised NFA and the underground Green Resistance have started to attract deserters from Gaddafi's once sycophantic entourage.

Machinegun bursts are heard over a large swathe of the country, and not all of them the discharge of firearms from trigger-happy revolutionaries and regional militias. An estimated 1.5 million Libyans abroad, mostly in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt were not permitted to participate in the polls. Most are suspected of being Gaddafi loyalists.

Can Jibril cut a deal with the moderate Islamists? He can, but then the deal may yet fall apart.

If disgruntled and disfranchised groups like Gaddafi loyalists and black-skinned Libyans are not fully integrated in the new political dispensation should leave lighter-skinned Libyan politicians pink-cheeked with embarrassment and the crimson of culpability.

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