The interpretation of Libya’s elections of July 2012 as a victory for secularism is misleading. A more nuanced reading of the vote must accommodate the reality and potential of Islamism, says Alison Pargeter.
The result of Libya’s legislative elections on 7 July 2012, held just short of nine months after the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in October 2011, was hailed by many media outlets and policymakers as a victory for secularism in the country and the region. The headline figure – thirty-nine seats in the “national general congress” won by the National Forces Alliance (a broad-based liberal coalition), against seventeen by the Justice & Construction Party (Libya’s version of the Muslim Brotherhood) – was read with near-jubilation as evidence that the local Islamists had failed to replicate the success of their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia, and that the “Islamist axis” unleashed by the Arab spring of 2011 had been punctured.
A closer look, though, suggests that the mix of joy and relief was misplaced. For if the Libyan Brotherhood and the other Islamist parties that contested the elections did not achieve the victory they had hoped for, the notion that the elections were a triumph for secularism is misplaced.
The most basic argument for suspending judgment about the result is that a complete picture has yet to emerge. This is because of the structure of the country’s election law, which sought to ensure that no single party could gain a ruling majority: only eighty of the 200 seats in the congress were reserved for political parties, with the remaining 120 seats allocated to individual candidates. Both the National Forces Alliance (NFA) and the Justice & Construction Party (JCP) are trying to woo these individual seat-holders to their side, but the latter are giving few signals of their intention and it is not certain that they will choose to ally themselves with either side.
This may begin to become clearer on 8 August, when the congress holds its first meeting. This session will be largely ceremonial, its purpose being to allow the existing authority – the National Transitional Council (NTC) – formally to transfer power to the new body. But the congress’s next task will be to vote for the head of the congress (the equivalent of speaker) and for the prime minister. Only then will a true inkling of the real orientation of Libya’s new legislative body emerge. In short: don’t dismiss the Islamists just yet.
Mahmoud Jibril’s alliance
The view of the election as a triumph for secularism owes much to the National Forces Alliance’s position as the largest single party, and the reputation of its leader, Mahmoud Jibril – a former planning minister in the Gaddafi regime – as liberal in orientation. But it is wrong to describe the alliance as a purely secular grouping. The NFA comprises some fifty political entities and over 240 NGOs and includes a broad array of individuals, some of whom are of an Islamist persuasion. Among the latter is Sheikh Abdelatif al-Mehelhel, one of Tripoli’s most prominent Islamic scholars, whose name has been touted by some as a potential candidate for the post of head of the congress.
Moreover, even the liberal-minded Mahmoud Jibril is senstive to the conservative nature of Libyan society, and made a strong appeal to traditional and conservative values during his election campaign – to the extent that the Muslim Brotherhood felt he had invaded their territory, and even accused him of inflating his Islamist credentials in order to win votes.