The Arab Spring has been a mixed blessing for Western governments. While those governments provided considerable support for the forces battling the old regimes in the region, the overthrow of those autocratic governments has in some cases brought to power Islamic political parties whose commitment to democracy is unclear and which demonstrate considerable enmity to the partners which made it possible for them to come to power.
In Libya, however, elections on July 7 produced a victory for a liberal alliance that appears firmly grounded in secularism, while promising to respect Islamic law.
While the alliance is celebrating its win, the outcome is more a victory for Libyan democracy and the Libyan people than any particular party.
In 1969, a group of young military officers led a bloodless coup against King Idris, who had led the Kingdom of Libya since 1951. While the country was nominally ruled by a committee, Moammar Gadhafi emerged as “first among equals,” and he embarked on a 42-year reign that was increasingly idiosyncratic and paranoid. Even though he styled himself as a man of the people, he ruled by harsh and dictatorial methods.
Gadhafi was toppled when the Arab Spring swept Libya. Aided by support from the Arab League and NATO nations, rebel forces overthrew the mercurial leader who had vowed to fight to the death. He kept his promise: Gadhafi was caught and killed on Oct. 20, 2011. Libya was officially declared liberated three days later.
A National Transitional Council (NTC) formed during the civil war has shepherded the country toward the elections. The new congress was supposed to appoint a new government and draft a new constitution by next year.
The July 7 ballot was the first national election in Libya since 1964. About 1.7 million Libyans voted — a turnout of about 65 percent in a country of 6 million people and 2.8 million registered voters — to select members of the 200-seat General National Congress. An alliance of liberal parties led by Mr. Mahmoud Jabril, a U.S.-educated economist, prevailed in the ballot and looks set to lead the next government.
While observers say the results are fair and accurate, Mr. Jabril has his work cut out for him.
First, his National Forces Alliance is a broad coalition of nearly 60 parties that represent a broad range of concerns. Most basically, they embrace Western-style democracy while respecting Islamic law and institutions. They may stand for a majority of opinion, but while it is a wide consensus, it is not clear how deep it is. Thus forming a working coalition will be very hard.
Moreover, only 80 of the 200 seats in the new congress are allocated to parties; the remainder will go to individuals without formal party affiliations. This makes coalition building difficult.
More basically, Gadhafi took all power himself: He hollowed out or destroyed almost all the institutions of the Libyan state. The new government must rebuild them from the ground up. To their credit, the Islamist parties have conceded defeat and seem ready to work as a loyal opposition. Voters will be clearly uncomfortable with them although Islamic politicians complained that they had been unfairly portrayed in the media.
Their respect for the election results and readiness to work within the system, instead of against it, will also be important for establishing a credible democratic regime.
The new government must unite a country whose regional fissures threaten to become fractures. Libya has always had deep geographic divisions; the unfolding of the revolt against Gadhafi provided ample proof of the enduring differences in outlook. Armed militias sprang up in almost every city, beholden only to its local leadership, and today, when the fighting has ended, resent having to cede power and autonomy to a national government. The 20 million guns that are said to be in circulation throughout the country backstop their defiance.
Ironically, uniting the country may be facilitated by a troubling move by the NTC just before the election. The committee decided that the new congress will not write the new constitution. Instead, a second election will be held; this way, representatives of the constitutional convention will be selected directly by the people.
While this produced predictable resentment among the new legislators, it is an attempt to mollify residents in eastern Libya who complain that the new congress under-represents them.
If that’s the purpose and not just an attempt to short-circuit the July 7 vote — and there is no reason to think it is as the election results are consistent with the NTC’s own makeup and inclinations (after all, Mr. Jabril was the first head of the NTC) — then this move could foster a sense of national purpose.
Libya has a long way to go. The country has great economic potential — at least, it has great wealth — but long-term stability depends on exploitation of that wealth in ways that benefit all the citizens of Libya. Moreover, the political system has to be seen to deliver results.
While the primary burden rests on Libyan politicians, who must develop a common purpose and shared sense of responsibility for outcomes, outsiders can help. A heavy burden also falls on European shoulders, given Libya’s long-standing ties to the continent.
European governments must ensure, among other things, that their eagerness to tap Libya’s natural resources does not promote the corruption that will undermine the Tripoli government’s legitimacy.
In short, Libya’s future remains uncertain but the July 7 elections are a good start.