8. Will the elections in Libya bring national unity or division?

Text: “National Forces Alliance: Libya for all… with all” (left), “High National Election Commission” (centre), “Justice and Construction: Justice prevails and construction rises” (right).

The recent Libyan elections for the General National Council (GNC) on 7 July 2012 can be best described as chaotic, but successful. The elections, in which 1.8 million Libyans (63% of the registered electorate) voted, were the first since the revolution against Mu’ammar Ghaddafi and went smoothly apart from some minor (technical) troubles. However, some of these troubles may affect the unity of the country in the long-term, if they remain unsolved. The first problem is Libya’s many militias that remain out of the government’s control. Their continuous fighting against rivals and perceived Ghaddafi supporters threaten the stability of the country. The same goes for the ancient rivalry between Cyrenaica (East Libya) and Tripolitania (West Libya). For example, when it became clear that Tripolitania would receive more seats in the GNC than the Cyrenaica, protesters in Benghazi and Ajdabiya attacked election offices and burned ballots.

In response to these protests, the National Transitional Council (NTC) stripped unexpectedly the GNC of its power to select the 60 members of the Constitutional Committee, limiting the powers of Libya’s new parliament to appointing a prime minister and approving his cabinet. Instead, each part of Libya will directly elect its 20 representatives for the Constitutional Committee that will draft Libya’s new constitution. The division of the 200 seats in the GNC follows, on the other hand, the division of Libya’s population assigning Tripolitania thus 100 seats, Cyrenaica 60 and South Libya 40. To make it even more complicated, 120 of its 200 seats are reserved for individual candidates and 80 for political parties. This system favours thus regional over national representation and may possibly help to entrench local and tribal differences.

On the other hand, the result of the elections shows that most Libyans voted for the same political parties regardless that they could choose out of 130 political parties (and 3.676 individual candidates): the National Forces Alliance (NFA) (39 seats) and the Justice and Construction Party (JCP) (17 seats). This means that national parties may overcome regional differences.

The NFA (in Arabic تحلاف القوى الوطنية) was founded in February 2012 and is a coalition of 60 political parties and a wide range of Libyan organisations and individuals. Its individual members are not mentioned on the NFA’s website, but this did not matter as voters were mostly interested in its leader, Mahmoud Jibril. The popularity of the NFA may very well reflect the popularity of Jibril.

Jibril was born in 1952 in Benghazi and studied Economy and Political Science at Cairo University in Egypt, from which he graduated in 1975. Subsequently, he moved to the United States for a Master in Political Science (1980) and PhD in Strategic Planning (1984) at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Afterwards, he started a company that provided training to politicians in the Middle-East. In 2007 he was appointed by Saif al-Islam Ghaddafi as chairman of the National Economic Planning Council, in which position he tried to diversify Libya’s economy. After the start of the Libyan revolution, he quickly joined the NTC as head of its executive bureau and minister of foreign affairs. Jibril is best remembered for his diplomatic successes, like the support he mustered from the French president Sarkozy and the NATO for the revolutionaries. He was later criticized for the slow reforms at home, but only in the last month of his tenure (October 2011) the war against Ghaddafi’s troops ended. Jibril became the leader of the NFA in March 2012.

The goal of the NFA coalition is to form a united voting bloc in parliament in order to realize their vision of Libya as a democratic civil state. Gender equality, human rights and freedom of expression and protest should be safeguarded. Furthermore, the social conditions of the Libyans should be improved and Libya’s economy should be stimulated. The NFA takes an inclusive approach calling for an all-inclusive government and stressing that no ethnic, regional or tribal group may be marginalized or excluded. Moreover, democracy should enhance social cohesion and peaceful problem solving within Libya. Jibril states that the NFA is a party based on a tolerant Islam and not a secular or liberal party, which is seen by some Libyans as slander from Qatar to discredit the NFA in favour of Islamist parties sponsored by Qatar, like the JCP and al-Watan party. NFA’s program envisages a cultural diverse Libya with Islam as its religion, Arabic as its language and Islamic law (sharia) as the most important source of law.

The second biggest party is the JCP (in Arabic حزب العدالة و البناء), which was founded in March 2012 by the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood. Regardless this fact and the accusations that it receives Qatari money, the JCP claims to be fully independent from any group and only sponsored by its members. As proof it released its financial statements, which in fact revealed little about the provenance of JCP’s cash (2.4 million dinar or approximately 1.5 million Euros).

The history of JCP’s founders, the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, starts in 1949, when Egyptian Muslim Brothers fled the unrest in Egypt and settled in Benghazi. Only in 1968 the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood established itself officially as an organization. Under Ghaddafi, the Muslim Brotherhood suffered from mass arrests and public executions from the 70’s onwards when Ghaddafi branded them as heretics. Forced into exile, the Libyan Muslim Brothers refounded their organisation in 1980 in the USA and attempted to do the same in Libya in the following years. Ghaddafi’s oppression of the Muslim Brotherhood only increased in the 80’s and 90’s when armed Islamist groups attempted to overthrow Ghaddafi. The movement lost most of its leading figures in the 1996 Abu Selim prison massacre. The repression eased, when Ghaddafi appeared victorious from his battle against armed Islamist groups in 1999. Reduced to a few thousand members, the Muslim Brotherhood chose to cooperate with Saif al-Islam Ghaddafi securing the release of its members in 2006. However, the movement quickly changed sides in the Libyan revolution, supporting NTC albeit with reservations. In December 2011 the movements General Observer (leader) Bashir al-Kubti announced the plan to establish a political party, which became the JCP with the Muslim Brother Mohammed Hassan Sowan as its leader.

Sowan was born in Misrata and studied Education at al-Baidha University, from which he graduated in 1982. He resumed in 1993 his studies in Tripoli, where he attained in 1998 a degree in Social and Psychological Counselling. He was then arrested and imprisoned for his involvement in the Muslim Brotherhood or, as he recounts, for his attempts to establish a political party. After eight years in Abu Selim prison, he was released in 2006. He worked for some time as a hotel manager and during the revolution he joined the municipal council of his hometown Misrata. Before he was elected as JCP’s president, he served as the head of the Consultative Council of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood.

Like the NFA, the JCP wishes to rebuild Libya as a democratic civil state with a tolerant Islamic reference. Islam should be Libya’s religion, Arabic its language and sharia the principle source of all law and not just of family law as, according to Sowan, the NFA intends. Furthermore, women have a right to work in conformity with the general morals and Islamic values, their rights under the sharia should be protected and no dress code shall be imposed although the wearing of the hijab (headscarf) will be promoted. JCP’s program uses the Islam more as a reference point than the NFA, albeit its use is mostly limited to gender and family issues. The rest of the program focuses more on daily issues, like the restoration of Libya’s security and economy and the fight against corruption. Finally, the JCP promotes simultaneously national reconciliation and the expurgation of the remnants of the Ghaddafi regime from the government.

Sowan tried in vain to undermine Jibril’s popularity by painting him as a member of the Ghaddafi regime, but in the end the NFA beat the JCP squarely in its stronghold Benghazi and most other constituencies. Only in Misrata, Urabi and some neighbourhoods in Tripoli did the JCP better than the NFA, but ended still second in the results. The JCP blames the voters’ unfamiliarity with the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood for the disappointing results. Both parties hope to gain a majority in parliament and form a government with help from the 120 individual candidates in the GNC. However, it may be difficult for both parties to persuade enough individual candidates to secure a majority. On the other hand, the individual candidates may comprehend the importance that Libya is quickly rebuilt and will quickly side with one of the parties. The future will tell how much goodwill is present in Libya’s parliament, but the manner in which currently the parliament’s seats are allocated, may foster regional, tribal or political fragmentation of Libya.

Main internet sources and further reading

– Website National Forces Alliance – http://www.nff.ly

– Website Justice and Construction Party – http://www.ab.ly

– Website High National Election Commission – http://www.hnec.ly

– Libyan daily The Tripoli Post – http://www.tripolipost.com

– Qatari news organisation al-Jazeera – www.aljazeera.com


– Ashour, O., Libyan Islamists unpacked: Rise, transformation, and future, May 2012, Brooking Doha Centre

– Anderson, L., Ghadhdhafi and his opposition, in Middle East Journal, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Spring 1986), p. 225-37

– Ronen, Y., Qadhafi and militant Islamism: Unprecedented conflict, in Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 38, No. 4 (October 2002), p. 1-16

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