At Large

Rethinking Libya

What explains the Islamist setback in the recent elections?

By 7.12.12

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Pace the expectations of numerous commentators, including my own, Islamist factions have not emerged to dominate the Libyan election results. Instead, the National Forces Alliance (NFA) -- a coalition led by the former interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril -- has outmaneuvered the Muslim Brotherhood and the al-Watan party led by Abdelhakim Belhadj, who once headed the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group that was affiliated with al Qaeda.

The Islamist factions are hoping to dominate the political process through the remaining 120 seats in the Libyan congress open to candidates who are at least nominally independent, but tally results so far suggest that even in areas where Islamists are thought to have stronger influence than in the rest of the country (e.g. the eastern city of Darna), the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction Party performed poorly against the NFA.

For a fuller overview of results, see an online report by the Libya Herald, which illustrates that the defeat was even more crushing for the al-Watan party.

All this indicates my assessment last October that "it is becoming increasingly apparent that Islamism will be the dominant political force in the country" has turned out to be incorrect.

It was not unreasonable to express concerns regarding the influence the likes of Belhadj initially held during the interim period under the National Transitional Council (NTC), but where did I get Libya wrong?

Islamists and foreign influence: It appears that I underestimated the stigma associated with ties to foreign powers for Islamists. I noted this point in an article I wrote on the interim cabinet appointments by the NTC that excluded Islamists, a move that was at least partly intended as a rebuke for Qatar, which has been repeatedly accused by Libyan officials of backing Islamist militants and circumventing the NTC in provision of aid.

This chiding of perceived excessive interference by Qatar clearly resonated with popular sentiment in Libya, and the failure on the part of Belhadj and his ilk to distance themselves from ties to Qatar has come at a great cost.

The same applies for the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya: The support lent by Qatar to the Brotherhood in Egypt, with al-Jazeera's sycophantic coverage of the Islamist organization and its presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi the most obvious sign, would have been all too apparent to Libyan voters.

The evidence here vindicates my point last year about Qatar's pro-Sunni Islamist agenda in the Arab Spring, for which I was derided by Michael Hughes as a "neoconservative" in the Huffington Post, who drew attention to Qatari media coverage of Saudi Arabia in 2002 (a complete red herring).

In hindsight, I should have foreseen the impact of the stigma of being seen as agents of foreign powers by comparison with developments in Iraqi politics since 2005, where the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) -- a Shi'ite political faction -- lost much support in the 2009 provincial elections in the face of the nationalist platform of Nouri al-Maliki.

ISCI, previously known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, felt compelled to change its name amid widespread suspicions of being an agent for Iranian interests.

In any case, it should also be noted that the Brotherhood in particular is tainted by an image of having not participated in the uprising against Gaddafi. Having reached some sort of reconciliation with the dictator from 2003 onwards, the Islamist group boycotted an opposition conference in London in 2005 that called for the overthrow of Gaddafi.

False polarizing dichotomies: In earlier articles I wrote on Libya, I think it is fair to say that I was too focused on an apparent Islamist-Liberal dichotomy. For example, I once drew on a Wall Street Journal piece to draw a sharp contrast between supposedly secular and liberal Berbers and an Islamist-inclined Arab population. Later, however, I realized that such a picture was not quite accurate, and is often the result of an impression given by Berber activists who address Western audiences.

During the Libyan elections, it has become commonplace to see Jibril's NFA described as a "liberal" bloc. Yet Jibril himself has insisted that the NFA espouses neither secularism nor liberalism, and views Islamic law as a main source for legislation, which parallels the words of Mustafa Abdul Jalil -- the head of the NTC -- last year.

Again, analogy with Iraqi politics is useful here, where one often finds that the Iraqi National Movement (INM) bloc led by Ayad Allawi is described as "secular." In truth, INM is a very broad and loose coalition of parties -- just as Jibril's bloc reportedly comprises around 60 parties -- encompassing some secular-minded Sunni and Shi'a in Baghdad, together with Sunni Islamists.

In a recent interview, Jibril stressed that he would be willing to form a coalition government with the Muslim Brotherhood, pointing to the need for "national unity." While Brotherhood members in Libya have now accused Jibril of engaging in unfair electoral tactics, there is little they can do but try to form a coalition agreement with Jibril's bloc.

The emerging picture is therefore as follows: As in Iraq, Islamic religious norms will certainly remain a part of daily life in Libya and Islamists -- in areas where they wield influence -- may organize their own local militias to enforce aspects of Shari'a, but it is unlikely that there will be implementation of a full-blown Islamist agenda on a national level by the government, which will probably be open to engagement by the West.

More generally, an important lesson to draw here is to avoid sensationalism in analyzing developments in Libya, which is yet another parallel with the situation in Iraq and media coverage of events there.

The problem of clashes between competing local militias and tribes is unlikely to be fully reined in for quite some time, while torture and lack of respect for the rule of law will probably remain commonplace.

However, larger-scale reprisals against perceived supporters of Gaddafi's regime (e.g. the Tuareg, who have consequently fled south into Mali) were already carried out and completed quite some time ago.

Further, one should avoid making too much out of the autonomist movement in eastern Libya, which has welcomed Jibril's success in the elections and is hoping for a "constructive dialogue" with him on the issue of autonomy, condemning the anti-electoral violence committed by some protesters in the run-up to the elections. The question of autonomy will either be resolved or remain in limbo, and it is unlikely to lead to secession from Libya on the part of Cyrenaica.

What many reports have termed a "localism" trend in the country since the downfall of Gaddafi's regime should be taken into consideration, yet as in Iraq, the need to preserve an infrastructure for the vital oil industry will prevent a fragmentation of the nation into mini-states along the lines of Dark Age Greece (i.e. the period between the Bronze Age collapse and the appearance of the Homeric epics).

To sum up: Libya is doing much better than I expected. The academic and pundit Hussein Ibish, who on reading my piece "Libya Heading Towards Islamism" suggested that I might be overestimating the strength of the Islamists, got it right. I got it wrong.

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About the Author
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University. His website is http://www.aymennjawad.org.