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Books on Libya

Update No: 103 - (26/07/12)

Not Quite out of the Sandbox Yet
On July 7, Libya held its first elections after 42 years of dictatorship; Colonel Qadhafi banned political parties and effectively ruled the country by decree, even while there were the trappings of popularly elected ‘committees’. The elections also mark Libya’s shift away from the National Transition Council (CNT), which led the country during the immediate post-Qadhafi period toward a democratically elected government (the General National Congress - GNC) and a new constitutional process.

Libya did not have a Constitution during the Qadhafi era; the closest document to a ‘fundamental charter’ was Qadhafi’s own Green Book, which served as the sole inspiration for the political system. The GNC faces monumental challenges. It will have to establish the institutional framework that the ‘Green Book’ was never able to inspire; it will have to disarm the many regional and local militias, which still wield considerable power and interference; it will have to set up a new army and a new national police force, able to establish widespread legitimacy. The CNT was supposed to tackle the latter goals, but it has failed to produce any lasting security institutions. In effect, while Qadhafi may be gone, the tribal legacy he fostered in order to manage his authority has entrenched itself even further through the dozens of militias that are fueling many questions over Libya’s future and national unity. That said, the Libyan elections have yielded a surprising blow to the Islamist factions, leaving some room for optimism that the ‘Arab Awakening’ may yet leave some room for secular governments.

There are inherent ‘Libyan’ reasons why the Islamists have failed to gain the support they managed to earn in neighboring Tunisia or Egypt. The CNT itself also managed to deal a rare well played ‘hand’ by exploiting Libya’s legacy of weak political parties. Qadhafi didn’t allow political parties and his predecessor, King Idris, also discouraged them. Undeveloped party politics have, therefore, left much power to independent candidates such that 80 of the 200 seats went to candidates running on party lists and the remaining 120 to independents. Independents dominated the elections under the monarchy. This effectively assured that no party could make big gains, least of all the Muslim Brotherhood, which had little time to organize itself and whose success in Egypt relied on decades of grass roots activity. The Brotherhood did run candidates under the progressively named Justice and Constitution Party, which through its various affiliated parties ( a total of over 140 participated only to be grouped in various coalitions) managed to win almost 22% of the votes. The more radical jihadists failed to secure any seats.

The Alliance of National Forces (ANF) coalition, meanwhile, led by outgoing CNT Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril secured about 40% of the votes and the leadership. The ANF declares itself to be secular even though it claims to subscribe to the Shari’a, Islamic law, as the main source of legislation. In Libya, in fact, political Islam has never had much room to develop. In Egypt, while banned from running officially for parliament, even Mubarak had allowed them some uncomfortable room allowing the Brothers to take root among the population and indirectly influencing political debate. This does not mean that today radical Islam is not present in Libya; rather, it is present and quite radical at that. However, radical Islam has not yet reached the strength here to challenge the tribe as the model for social organization. Libya, for all of Qadhafi’s modernizing efforts, has remained a very conservative society. Ultimately, the electoral overweight of the independents assured that none of the party coalitions was able to gather sufficient power to govern alone. However, the independents and their preponderance also serve proof of the affirmation of Libya’s true nature as a country still organized along tribal lines.

The success of the independents was all but assured by the electoral law which inherently favored independent candidates. By that we can interpret the law as having favored local ‘chieftains’ rather than party cadres; indeed, Jibril, who not by chance represents the Warfalla tribe, the most numerous, lost in Misrata to an independent. Misrata, in fact, is not dominated by the Warfalla. In a sense, and notwithstanding the optimistic comments from the media that Libya is taking a ‘western’ style path to ‘democracy’, it would seem more correct to suggest that it is at a crossroads. If the new National Congress will be able to establish internal harmony – not exactly an easy task, as the independents by definition, have not presented their political colors – it will be able to begin to address Libya’s many challenges from rebuilding a national armed force to re-launching the economic system; in particular, to build the private sector that Qadhafi had so often promised through seed money earned from oil. Should Jibril fail to do so, the militias will maintain and probably expand their power in order to represent the authority of the tribes, rather than the national interest. Naturally, such a tribal course would imply continued tribal tensions and warfare. Such prospects suggest that Libya may yet fall into the ‘failed state’ scenario that has been presented in various Libya updates in Newnations. Qadhafi’s departure revealed a divided Libya and one that was held together only by a very sticky and repressive glue.

More than the failure of Islamists to dominate the political scene, the tribal element has been the factor that has set Libya apart from the other countries of the Arab Awakening. The tribal blueprint was tacitly encouraged, or exploited, by the Qadhafi regime, which was happy to let it linger by ignoring institutional building of any sort, beyond what was immediately necessary for the regime’s survival: that is the security apparatus and the oil establishment. The tribal element has effectively prevented any kind of political discourse to develop in the new Libya and this negligence, of course, has also affected Islamist parties.

The new Libya thus seems to have taken a different path; however, this does not lead to any hasty celebrations or enthusiasm. Certainly, we cannot take the Libyan election results as evidence that Libyans are more secular than other Arabs.

That said, we can only hope that the new government is able to acquire some kind of legitimacy, tribal or otherwise, in order to wipe out the armed militias that still roam the cities of Libya in defiance of the Provisional Government. The militias are still powerful and not just in the fringes of Sebha and Kufra. There are still reports of arbitrary arrests, torture, kidnappings and murders; there are also secessionist winds blowing from Cyrenaica.

Finally, there is the risk that Jibril will get caught up in the tribal web as he tries to form his government and set a course for the country. The independent candidates may have saved Libya from Islamism but as their ‘independent’ nature suggests, they represent independent interests that may well suffer in a more centralized and secular government program. Jibril has his proverbial work cut out if he is to make Libya into a State.

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