The Libyan elections were free and peaceful – and did not lead to Islamist victory
Libya has gone off-script. This was supposed, by some, to be a simple story: naive liberals support Libyan revolution, Islamists hijack revolution. The end. Last year, the American Spectator warned that “it is becoming increasingly apparent that Islamism will be the dominant political force in the country”, with “ever more visible links to al-Qaeda”. John Bradley, writing in this country’s Spectator, wailed that “self-declared former al-Qaeda fighters and bands of tribal fanatics” had taken over Libya and “imposed sharia law on the once-secular country”.
So, how is that post-revolutionary Islamist wasteland shaping up today? Well, a coalition led by the Western-educated political scientist and former interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril appears to have won Libya’s first free elections in 60 years, sweeping aside its Islamist opponents. Even in their eastern stronghold of Darnah, the hardline Islamists were thumped. These elections garnered 62 per cent turnout. They were mostly peaceful, with fewer than 2 per cent of polling stations closed. According to one observer, they were “described as a big family wedding, with lots of loud celebration and tears of joy”. Even in those areas thought to be hostile to the revolution – such as Sirte, Colonel Gaddafi’s hometown – turnout was surprisingly robust.
Of course, disruptions occurred. But these were caused mainly by federalists – those who want greater representation for eastern Libya – rather than gun-toting jihadists. And this is not a one-off. As Sean Kane, who spent the past six months in Libya, wrote last month: “With virtually no international advice and using their own funds, Misurata and Benghazi pulled together near world-class local elections this spring that were more akin to town-wide wedding feasts than dry exercises of civic duty.”
At a time when it is increasingly fashionable to dismiss the Arab Spring as a fantasy, here is its animating spirit at work. These are remarkable accomplishments for a country that was gripped by civil war less than a year ago. When Iraq held its first parliamentary elections after the US invasion, hundreds of armed attacks resulted in 44 deaths. In the 2010 Iraqi elections, more than 400 people died. In Libya, reports suggest that the corresponding figure is less than five.
Yes, Islam is a major social force in Libya. No mainstream political party would say it was “secular” (nor, by the way, would any mainstream American politician admit to being “atheist”). The leading coalition is not “liberal” in the way we understand the word. Should it win, it will be open to working with more avowed Islamists, and will accept sharia as the basis for law.
There is a great deal to criticise here. But the suggestion that the revolution destroyed a “once-secular” country is untenable. Islam has always been a dominant force in the country, and Gaddafi was no exception. The difference is that Libya’s new democrats are unlikely to slaughter their electorate by the thousand.
Henry Smith, an expert on Libya, notes that “most political parties attempt to be politically and socially inclusive, and friendly to private enterprise”. As George Grant, Tripoli-based assistant editor of the Libya Herald, explains in his guide to the Libyan political landscape, “the division between secularists and Islamists so beloved by outsiders looking into Libya is a false one. Jibril’s [coalition] is a case in point. At the coalition’s launch, prominence of place was given to a leading sheikh from Zintan, whilst proceedings were introduced by a woman in high-heels, a ‘hijab-chic’ and a skin-tight black catsuit.”
Such is Libyan politics. You don’t have to have spent much time in the Pakistani tribal areas to know that this isn’t al-Qaeda. Prior to the election, one of the country’s most senior clerics even issued a fatwa against Jibril’s coalition for not being Islamic enough. The coalition has responded by suing the cleric in question, hardly a sign of quivering deference to the religious establishment. Far from turning Libyans off, Jibril’s pragmatism seems to have produced an electoral bonanza. In Tripoli, the coalition may have won a staggering 80 per cent of votes and, in Benghazi, 60 per cent. Simply put, Libya is not being “taken over” by jihadists.
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