POMED Notes: “Is Libya Really on the Path to Democracy?”
On Thursday, July 19, the Middle East Institute and the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies hosted a discussion on Libya’s recent elections and the country’s ongoing political transition. Ambassador David Mack, former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs, moderated the discussion. The panel included Christopher Blanchard, Middle East policy analyst with the Congressional Research Service; Karim Mezran, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center; and Daniel Serwer, senior fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies
For the full notes, please continue reading. Or, click here for the PDF.
Ambassador David Mack opened by noting that since Libyan independence and the start of monarchy in 1951 the country has not seen meaningful elections. When Libya did become independent, he said, it was among the poorest in the world. They have thus come a long way economically – but even more so politically. The large political hurdle the country had to overcome was largely because Gaddafi dismantled the already weak political institutions in place when he took power in 1969.
Ambassador Mack offered a few words on Mahmoud Jibril: Mack met with Jibril while the latter was working in D.C. He described Jibril as “extremely professional, decisive, self-confident – the same type of characteristics he displayed while acting as Libyan PM, and again now as the leader of the National Forces Alliance.”
Christopher Blanchard spoke next, beginning by pointing out that “all of us have a lot to learn about new Libya and its politics” Parsing these entities, he reminded us, as they grapple with the country’s complex issues is a major challenge. Blanchard devoted the rest of his talk to the interim election results. Beginning with an overview of the elections themselves, Blanchard explained that Libyans went to polls to select 200 members for GNC, which has responsibility to name members of constitutional body and interim cabinet. Two days before the election, the NTC issued a decision revoking the GNC’s ability to select the constitutional committee, though this decision may be reversed. Of the 200 GNC seats, 120 were designated for individual candidates and 80 as party lists. Former NTC prime minister Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance (NFA) took 39 of the 80 party-list seats, half of which came in urban distrcits of Benghazi and Tripoli. In Benghazi and Aziziya, moreover, Jibril took 60% of the seats despite facing 17 rivals. In Central and more rural areas such as Misrata, Murzuq, the NFA faced fiercer competition.
Blanchard commented that media has spun the NFA victory as meaning the Islamist wave has been broken. But this, Blanchard says, needs to be unpacked. The Brotherhood was not at the forefront of the opposition movement like al-Nahda, in Tunisia, he pointed out, particularly since the Brotherhood in Libya worked directly with Gaddafi to secure the release of many of its members.
Moreover, more conservative parties such as the Homeland Party didn’t explicitly paint themselves as more Islamist than their rivals.
The Brotherhood was confident before elections that they had a good strategy and were well organized – and they were. It is thus too early to call the Islamist wave broken as this may just be the first round, implying that the Brotherhood party’s future could still be bright.
Blanchard also noted that the tone of discourse shows that core debates about Islam and life will dominate future discussions. For example, the NTC issued “advice” two days before election to all parties, suggesting that sharia should be the main source of legislation – whether it’s one source or the primary source is now a key debate.
Regarding his experience observing elections in Ajdabiya, he suggested it was something of an “outlier,” referring to the disruptive nature of the district during the elections. District ballots burned just before the vote, and the southern portion of the district delayed its vote two days because of and ongoing conflict in Kufra. Federalists, moreover, intercepted some of the election materials during transport. That said, HNEC replaced all materials. Regardless, this demonstrates the country’s ongoing security dilemma. Coherent national security, according to Blanchard, is still beyond reach.
Karim Mezran spoke next. Today, he noted, ideologies and elections and politics can be discussed without getting people jailed – this is the most important thing that has happened in Libya.
Mezran continued by arguing that the media portrayal of liberals winning and Islamists losing is not the full picture, and we need to identify what really happened.
There are no secularists – Jibril says he is neither secular nor liberal, but has stated “we are simply running for Libya” – Abdelhakim Belhadj said the same thing. Mohamed Sawan of the Muslim Brotherhood went too far by saying he is the only one who understands Islam.
Mezran made it clear that “everyone considers these elections legitimate. No one has felt marginalized.”
Turning to the political campaigns themselves, Mezran considered why Jibril made it and the Islamists failed. Mezran noted that Jibril took advice from other major figures to make a broad coalition and pick up locals who are well known in further out areas but still using his own image to campaign in the urban areas where people know Jibril. In the rural areas they were thus voting for local candidate.
This will, Mezran argues, create problems later. Specifically, Mezran noted that the problem now for Jibril is one of how to administer this success and keep his coalition united, which is not ideologically coherent. Some people in the coalition do not know him well, and collectively they must negotiate with other forces in the upcoming Congress. Also, Jibril did not campaign on ideology but instead economic reform.
Turning to the question of why Islamists lost, Mezran pointed out that while the major Islamist parties, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, were coherent, they were too closely associated with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Qatar. Moreover, Mohamed Sawan, the president of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party, was not charismatic and even provoked people with some of his words. Despite media reports that suggest otherwise, Mezran doesn’t think the individual candidates will add more than 15 or 20 candidates to the Muslim Brotherhood bloc, which will not be enough to counter Jibril.
Regarding remnants of regime, there are often rumors and discussion of the second or third line regime candidates still vying for power. Though there is often debate over whether too many regime defectors are around Jibril, Mezran argued that this isn’t very relevant.
Earlier in the year, according to Mezran, there was an attempt to form unity between Jibril and the other national leaders– Belhadj, Sawan, and Magariaf, but this failed when Jibril pulled out and talks fell apart.
Finally, a broader national coalition will also be made difficult by personal enmity between al-Salabi – conservative leader of the Homeland Party– and Jibril.
Daniel Serwer spoke last, beginning with the importance of what he called “ownership.” It is clear, he said, that Libyan own this election. “Not that we did nothing,” he continued, but rather that the UN, IFES, and others did good work by having a “broad mandate and a light footprint.” According to Serwer, these groups picked and chose how they would be helpful and did it with a light touch.
Moreover, the fact that Libyans had money allowed them to have elections that were better run, that they paid for, and that they could thus take ownership over. Providing an example, Serwer noted that they could fly planes to pick up ballots from further cities if needed.
Continuing, he argued that Libyans have a firmer sense of national identity than we anticipated , and this is largely a legacy of the deep hatred of Gaddafi, which serves as a unifying force. The second legacy is discipline – they gave the polling centers over to be run by school teachers who could give clear instructions. The third legacy from Gaddafi is an entitlement to self government – no one liked the Green Book, but from it Libyans learned and picked up an attachment to self governance. For example, before the GNC elections Libyans conducted a series of local elections in most heavily-populated locales – “this doesn’t happen in most autocratic societies.”
Finishing his talk, Serwer pointed out that “the dark cloud is oil.” If Libya is unable to construct a transparent and accountable system for its oil and gas, “all bets are off for democracy,” Serwer said. Of note, he made the interesting observation that there are only two countries that have been able to successfully do this in the hydrocarbon economy – Norway and East Timor. Interestingly, the latter did it while under U.N. tutelage. And the man who worked on that issue was Ian Martin, the current head of the UN Special Mission in Libya.