international analysis and commentary

Libya’s elections: understanding Arab transition politics


The results of Libya’s recent elections came as a surprise to some after a series of Islamist victories in neighboring countries and may have regional implications – though not in a simplistic “liberal vs Islamist” context. The National Forces Alliance, a liberal coalition led by ex-interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril won 39 out of 80 seats reserved for political parties, whereas the Muslim Brotherhood was only able to claim 17. The crux of the political situation depends on the 120 or so independent candidates in the General National Assembly and the political coalition with which they are alligned. Though most analysts have been quick to identify this as a secular victory in Libya, from a public policy perspective there is in fact very little difference between both political camps.

In reality, experience has shown us both in Tunisia and Egypt that Islamist parties can be liberal when it comes to economic policy. Both the Ennahda Party in Tunisia and the Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt have put forward economic platforms that are strongly in favor of free markets, international trade, capital account openness, privatization and progressive state welfare. From a social perspective both parties have been clear that they do not seek to impose Islamic values on the general population. Tunisia hasrecently struggled with hardline Islamists who stormed into an art exhibition claiming that it was displaying obscene and blasphemous material. The Ennahda-led government was firm in its crackdown on the protestors and the country was plunged into momentary chaos with a curfew imposed in several  areas. The government was  –  was less concerned about the Islamic undertone of protests than about  restoring security in order to protect the tourism industry that has been suffering due to recurrent unrest.

On the other hand, when we place liberal parties under the microscope, it becomes evident that their identity is also based on Islamic values and standards of living. Mahmoud Jibril has made it clear many times that although he represents a secular alliance, he still bases his decision-making process on the cultural and ethical values of Islam. The National Forces Alliance itself rejects the label of secular and prefers to be identified as a moderate Islamic coalition.

Thus it seems that the distinction between Islamist and liberal parties has no real added value from an analytical perspective. Then the question that begs itself is, why is this distinction over-emphasized in the media?

The truth of the matter is that the over-obsession with the rise of Islamist parties is an end product of the fear of uncertainty that has engulfed the region as a result of the Arab Spring. In reality, Islamic groups in the region have long been subjected to great oppression, demonization and persecution by their regimes. The Ennahda movement in Tunisia was banned as was the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. However, despite oppression (or maybe even because of it) these parties developed very advanced levels of organization and mobilization utilizing mosques as a primary point of contact. On many occasions they stood as the spearhead against former regimes, criticizing corruption and protesting against poor living standards. For this reason they have been able to develop strong credibility amongst voters. Thus the rise of Islamic political parties today in some countries is not necessarily a long-term phenomenon reflecting the moral or religious predisposition of Arab voters, but rather a knee-jerk reaction to the Arab Spring in which well-organized Islamic parties with good moral credibility were better positioned to fill the political void created after the fall of successive authoritarian regimes.

In Libya the situation is obviously quite different due to  how Gheddafi ran the country. All power was centralized in the individual figure of the autocratic leader  and very few  aides, and no room was given for any political maneuvering whatsoever. Islamist parties in Libya lack the same kind of support that they have fostered between the impoverished and oppressed population in other countries such as Egypt and Tunisia, as  any opposition was instantly crushed and any prospect of a political civil society outside the guise of the ruling party was shunned. As a result, Libya emerged from the revolution with great ambition but little experience in political governance and public affairs. Mahmoud Jibril’s coalition was able to win such wide support since he acts as a unifying political figure around which Libyans can rally.

Libya proves that the recent wave of Islamist electoral victories in the region is not to be considered as an ideological bias of local constituencies, but rather a transient phenomenon of political association in as much as Islamic parties have constituted a well-qualified substitute to the political void created after the fall of some regimes. In this respect, less focus should be placed on the inherent religious nature of the coalitions in power and more focus should be placed on their public policy choices. Due to the nuanced differences between the social and political agendas of mainstream liberal and Islamist parties, the key assessment of their actions to be made should regard their reformist inclination and potential rather than the religiosity of their political rhetoric.