Libya’s defeated Islamists

Liberals unexpectedly won recent elections, partly due to disorganisation and splits among Islamists.

Mahmoud Jibril, head of the National Forces Alliance, talks during a news conference at his headquarters in Tripoli
The National Forces Coalition, headed by Mahmoud Jibril, soundly defeated Islamists in Libya's elections [Reuters]

“We certainly did not expect the results, but… our future is certainly better than our present and our past,” said Sami al-Saadi, the former ideologue of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and the founder of the political party al-Umma al-Wasat, which finished third in Central Tripoli during Libya’s recent parliamentary election. The man whom Taliban leader Mullah Omar once called the “Sheikh of the Arabs”, and who authored the LIFG’s anti-democracy manifesto The Choice is Theirs, accepted the apparent victory of Libya’s more liberal forces.

Indeed, the results raised eyebrows, even among those analysts who did not expect an Islamist landslide. In the electoral district that includes Derna, commonly viewed as an Islamist stronghold, the liberal-leaning National Forces Coalition (NFC), a grouping of more than 60 parties and hundreds of local civil-society organisations, won 59,769 votes, while the Justice and Construction Party (JCP) of the Muslim Brothers (MB) received only 8,619. The liberal-leaning Central National Trend (CNT) finished third, with 4,962 votes.

In the impoverished western district of Abu Selim, where many Islamists are seen as local heroes due to their sacrifices under Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, the NFC swept the field with 60,052 votes, defeating all six Islamist parties, which received a combined total of fewer than 15,000 votes. Overall, liberal-leaning parties finished first in 11 of Libya’s 13 electoral districts, with the NFC winning ten and the CNT taking one.

 Listening Post – Covering Libya’s first post-Gaddafi elections

To be sure, the results will affect only 80 of the 200 seats in the constituent assembly, whose mandate is to appoint a prime minister, government and a committee to draft the constitution. The other 120 seats are assigned to individual candidates, who are likely to be local notables, independents with strong tribal affiliations, and, to a lesser extent, a mix of Islamist and liberal politicians.

Moreover, while the Islamists were soundly defeated, they performed quite well in many districts. Across Libya, they took second place in 10 districts (the JCP in nine and the Salafi-leaning Originality Coalition in one). In Misrata, the JCP finished second, after the local Union for Homeland Party, but still managed to win almost three times as many votes as the NFC, which came in fourth.

Nevertheless, the question remains: what happened to the Islamists? They spearheaded the opposition to Gaddafi, were advised by their Tunisian and Egyptian brethren, and larded their rhetoric with religious symbolism in a conservative Muslim country. For many, however, this was not enough.

A striking difference between Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and Tunisia’s Ennahda, on the one hand, and Libya’s Islamists on the other is the level of institutionalisation and interaction with the masses. In Gaddafi’s four decades in power, Libya’s Islamists could not build local support networks; develop organisational structures, hierarchies, or institutions; or create a parallel system of clinics and social services, as their counterparts in Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan were able to do.

As a result, Libya’s Islamists could not unite in a coalition as large as that of Mahmoud Jibril, the former prime minister under the National Transitional Council, who heads the NFC. Instead, their votes were divided between several parties, six of which are significant.

But another reason for the strong “liberal” turnout is the “blood” factor. “I am not giving my family’s votes to the MB. Two of my cousins died because of them,” Mohamed Abdul Hakim, a voter from Benghazi, told me. He agrees that Islam should be the source for legislation, and his wife wears a niqab. Nonetheless, he voted liberal: his cousins were killed in a confrontation in the 1990s, most likely between the Martyrs Movement (a small jihadist group operating in his neighbourhood at the time) and Gaddafi’s forces.

But many average Libyans, including Hakim, do not distinguish between Islamist organisations and their histories. For them, all Islamists are “Ikhwan” (MB). The “stain” of direct involvement in armed action, coupled with fear of Taliban-like laws or a civil war like Algeria’s in the 1990s, harmed Islamists of all brands.

A third reason for the Islamists’ defeat had to do with their campaign rhetoric. “It is offensive to tell me that I have to vote for an Islamic party,” Jamila Marzouki, an Islamic studies graduate, told me. Marzouki voted liberal, despite believing that Islam should be the ultimate reference for Libyan laws. “In Libya, we are Muslims. They can’t take away my identity and claim that it’s only theirs.”

Other factors had to do more with the liberal side. Jibril’s international legitimacy, his tribal affiliation (the Warfalla tribe includes about one million of Libya’s 6.4 million people), and leadership style, coupled with a broad coalition, served the country’s liberal forces well. So did a clever electoral campaign, which focused on incentives and hope (while also exaggerating the repercussions of an Islamist takeover).

The result was yet another paradox of the Arab Spring: a country that seemed to meet all of the conditions for an Islamist victory produced the sort of election results that liberals in Egypt and Tunisia could only dream about.

Omar Ashour is Director of the Middle East Graduate Studies at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter, and Visiting Fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

A version of this article was originally published on Project Syndicate.