Tripoli's testing questions
Is a Libyan coalition of dogma and pragmatism possible? Well, as long as women are well represented, asserts Gamal Nkrumah
The Libyan people's road to higher political consciousness began when the NATO air strikes intensified and the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was forced out of the capital Tripoli and his stronghold, the Bab Al-Aziziya Barracks. In this deadly terrain, Libyan democracy was relatively free of maxims and slogans.
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An eldery woman shows her ink-stained finger after casting her vote during the National Assembly election in Benghazi. Libyans, some with tears of joy in their eyes, queued to vote in their first free national election in 60 years
Of all the Arab upheavals, Libya's has been the most controversial. First and foremost, the obscene and vulgar intervention by the West, with NATO air cover and logistical support for the anti-Gaddafi militias, not to speak of the wanton destruction and barbaric bombardment of non-military targets such as schools and hospitals, led the country into a state of chaos and lawlessness. It was an inextricable conjuncture that only a people as resilient as the desert-dwelling Libyans could possibly contain.
Secondly, Libya turned out to be the only Arab country where the Islamists did not fare well in parliamentary elections. Only now I find that not thinking about liberals and secularists in the post-Arab Spring uprisings is far from being a viable option. The irony is that many pro-Gaddafi activists were not permitted to vote because around a million and a half registered voters live mainly as political exiles in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia.
Thirdly, and most astounding: the only piece of information that has caught my fancy was the electrifying news that Libyan women garnered more seats in the elections for the General Congress (GNC) which took place on 7 July than in any other Arab country, including Egypt and Tunisia.
Electing a constituent assembly in what could be a benchmark for its neighbours, Libyans elected more women and fewer Islamists than any other Arab Spring nation.
As such, the most impressive result of the tally was the active participation of Libyan women in re-shaping the political future of their country. The final tally gave women 17 per cent representation in the 200-member transitional legislative authority.
"This is a very good starting point with 32 women elected with the parties and one independent parliamentarian," Samira Massaud, acting president of Libyan Women's Union, membership in the thousands.
The GNC was originally designed to appoint a Constituent Assembly to draw up Libya's new constitution, but the National Transitional Council (NTC) announced on 5 July that the assembly would instead be directly elected at a later date. This was the Libyan people's first taste of flexible, non-doctrinaire, political ideas hitting the hard realities of post-Gaddafi Libya.
The battle to shape the future of the Arab world, it appears, kick-started in Libya. Tunisia was initially regarded as the trendsetter. Today Libya seems to have stolen the show.
The future of an Arab world in flux will be fierce. In Egypt and Tunisia, the polarisation of the political parties and ideologues -- Islamists of all shades and strands versus a motley bunch of leftists, secularists, and liberals -- are vying for position in the new post-Arab Spring dispensation.
Mahmoud Jibril, the charismatic leader of the Alliance of National Forces (ANF) vehemently insisted that he disliked the label "liberal" and "secularist" because all Libyans are Muslim. Yet it is clear that the Islamists were sidelined in Libya's 7 July election.
Islamism is one of several spectres that haunt Arab political discourse. In Libya, the Islamists do not appear to have had the same aura as they did in Egypt and Tunisia. In the latter two countries, Islamists were more integrally involved in social networking and in social welfare services. And in particular, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt had a hand in the conditions that drove the economic and political elite to engender institutional change based on the premise that the state no longer wished to provide public utilities, social welfare services, especially education and health. The religious groups, including the then-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt emerged as one of the main providers of sorely needed social services.
Libya, in sharp contrast, suspected the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists of collaborating with certain elements of the Gaddafi regime. This was especially so in the case of the more reconciliatory Seif Al-Islam, Gaddafi's son and heir apparent, who intended to incorporate the Islamists into a new political dispensation in Libya. Gaddafi himself disapproved and hurled most of the militant Islamists into his jails.
Moreover, Gaddafi strictly forbade the Islamists from engaging in social welfare activities. Unlike, in Egypt, where ex-president Hosni Mubarak permitted the Islamists to freely become involved in charitable work and social welfare, the Libyan authorities severely restricted the social work of the Islamists. The public rapport with the Islamists that was most obvious in Egypt was conspicuously absent in Libya.
This is not meant to be sour grapes. Libyans are understandably elated by the election results. It would be nothing of the sort. The rot began to set in for the Islamists.
Moreover, many Libyans, even those with political reservations against Gaddafi's authoritarian rule, did appreciate his emphasis on social justice and the provision of social welfare, education and medical care. In 1951, Libya was the poorest country per capita in the world. By 2011, Libya was the richest country per capita on the African continent.
A second Arab awakening is in the making. The humbling of the Islamists in Libya does not necessarily mean that they cannot form coalition governments with their political rivals.
The dynamics that gave way to the ideological wild goose chase that left the Islamists trailing behind the liberals and secularists in Libya may have something to do with the propaganda of the Gaddafi stalwarts, as some Islamists bitterly remonstrate.
Libya's election set in motion a new political dispensation, freer but also far more perplexing and complicated than the totalitarianism of Gaddafi's regime. In Libya, a key element was oil, and it still remains so. The Western nations' dithering over how to oust Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and the West's lack of resolve in militarily intervention in Syria contrasts sharply with their swift intervention in Libya.
Jibril's National Forces Alliance (NFA) gained 39 seats, or 48.9 per cent of the seats, while the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction Party trailed behind with 17 seats, 21.3 per cent. In Libya, the Muslim Brotherhood has failed to demonstrate that they may metamorphose into Islam's equivalent of the Christian Democrats in Europe. In short, they have a long way to go.
The Homeland Party, an Islamist coalition headed by Islamic cleric Ali-Al-Sallabi and Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, a former veteran of the Afghanistan war against the Soviets and a suspected Al-Qaeda activist, did very poorly. Belhaj even failed to win a seat in his own constituency in Tripoli.
Belhaj's legitimacy, tainted by the manner in which he lost ground during the election, now relies even more on whether Jibril and his NFA is able to deliver political stability and prosperity. But public attitudes cannot change overnight. Gaddafi insisted that parliamentary democracy was inherently corrupt and that the Libyan electorate was searching for the least corrupt politicians. Jibril, apart from being a member of Libya's largest tribal confederation, the Warfella, is also widely seen as a technocrat.
Gaddafi left Libya debt free and he had grandiose plans to create a single African currency -- the so-called "African gold dinar".
And, there is a need for caution along both these policy tracks. The Libyans are rightly sceptical of Islamists, and perhaps that is why there were 634 women candidates participating in the election.
This is one glaring weakness of the Libyan electoral process: only 1.7 million of 2.8 registered voters participated in the election. The results would certainly have been radically different had the secret Gaddafi sympathisers, both at home and abroad, participated in the 7 July poll.
Gaddafi's Libya may have been free of debt, but it threatened to upset the New Economic World Order by using a gold-based African currency as opposed to the United States dollar in its transactions. Many Libyans are acutely aware of the radical policies of Gaddafi.
Libya last held parliamentary elections in 1964 and 1965 during the reign of the late Libyan monarch King Idriss who was overthrown in a bloodless coup in 1969. In this year's poll, 200 seats were reserved for political parties and 120 seats for individual candidates -- not necessarily independent, but also affiliated to certain parties.
Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of all is that the gains made by the Libyan people in terms of social welfare would be eroded.
A business oligarchy is not the same as a market economy, and Libya has neither. And, it appears that the Libyan electorate is conscious of the fact. Confusing the two different things is lethal for a country's economic and political prospects.
The global crisis complicated matters further. Libyan voters roundly rejected Islamism. It is against this backdrop that Jibril or the NTC must take a more enlightened view of dissent. Should the frustration of Gaddafi loyalists or the disgruntled Islamists merely explode at a later date, Jibril's authority is likely to be diminished. Nor should Jibril ignore the regional and international repercussions of his decisions and actions. Bottling up Islamist and Gaddafi loyalist indignation does not necessarily mean they will just disappear in thin air.