The results of the first democratic elections in post-Moammar Gadhafi Libya are still coming in -- the official result isn't expected to be announced until later this week -- but a liberal coalition led by the country's revolutionary leader appears to be the major winner, challenging the emergence of Islamist politics in Libya and the region as a whole.
The progress Libya has made in its democratic development over the past year and a half is quite impressive. This is especially true in light of the near-total absence of political institutions and secular civil society at the end of the Gadhafi period, said David Mack, a Middle East Institute Scholar and former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.
Importantly, the Libyans own the results, which were not the product of a foreign occupation. While the final election results are still unknown and without minimizing the obstacles ahead, Libya is moving in a very positive direction.
The victorious National Forces Alliance, or NFA, is a political coalitional made up of roughly 60 parties, more than 200 NGOs and as many individuals. Touted as a liberal, pro-West institution, it's led by Mahmoud Jibril, Libya's revolutionary prime minister and formerly a prominent member of the National Transitional Council, which oversaw the rebel fighters and is now the country's interim government.
From his previous post, Jibril was one of Libya's top liaisons with NATO and the Friends of Libya, a group of more than 40 countries, the United Nations, NATO and the Arab League. Although Jibril didn't run for Libya's new congress, he now -- again -- heads the most powerful political entity in the country. Mack, who has met with Jibril in both Washington and Tripoli, described him as highly professional, well organized and decisive and someone Libyans can be proud of.
But despite its assumed success over Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction Party, which is believed to have come in second in Saturday's National Assembly elections, the coalition is not secular and it has stated that sharia law will inform future policy making. Still, fairly or not, many outside observers, including politicians in the United States, believe there is a dichotomy between political Islam and Western-style democracy, and the National Forces Alliance likely lies closer to the latter than the former, although with only two weeks of campaigning and broad political promises, it's hard to know for sure.
Unlike a post-revolutionary Egypt whose population is wary of foreigners and meddling Western governments, Libyans are friendlier toward the West, even if only slightly, due to NATO's role in the overthrow of Gadhafi. President Barack Obama is hoping that this dynamic will persist, and he was quick to state on Monday that the United States is proud of the role that we played in supporting the Libyan revolution and protecting the Libyan people, and we look forward to working closely with the new Libya.
Faisal Krekshi, the general secretary of the NFA, has also made it clear that Libya will work with its allies, telling the Libya Herald that definitely, we will be more open to cooperation with those countries who supported us in the revolution. But the coalition is looking beyond its friends in the West, adding that it will also deal with Russia and China, who were critical of the revolution, as an interest of the state, as well as build relationships with its neighbors. Krekshi also vowed to support the Palestinian Liberation Organization with whatever decisions they make concerning Israel, which is a notable disparity with the interests of NATO.
We have to be careful about describing the NFA as liberal. It's liberal in Libyan terms, explained Richard Cochrane, an analyst at IHS Global Insight.
It would be premature to call them pro-West. True, a lot of support for the new government will come from the West, particularly Europe, but there is still some distrust and suspicion about the foreign interest involved in the revolution. They (Libyans) have their priorities set going forward. I don't think there will be any great appreciation for NATO, which was instrumental in the revolution, and the future of Libya won't be dictated by NATO.
Like in Tunisia, Libya's new leaders will first rebuild domestically, then look for support within the region and finally venture west only as a tertiary option. They just want their country back after 42 years of a nasty dictatorship. They are not going to look elsewhere for help yet, said Cochrane.
The NFA and the national assembly have much work to accomplish at home before they can begin tackling broader international issues. The most pressing is the serious security breakdown that occurred after the fall of the Gadhafi regime that threatens to tear apart the country. The places that haven't been taken over by militias and ex-rebel brigades have reverted to tribal allegiances, save major cities like Tripoli, which is run by the National Transitional Council and its own coalition of local militias.
Because of this, many in Libya advocate for federalism, especially in the eastern half of the country, which includes the revolutionary flashpoint of Benghazi. Federalism would essentially legitimize these informal regional governments and weaken the national one. The issue is so heated that prior to the vote, federalists attacked election offices, shut down oil wells and threatened to boycott the vote.
Despite that, the weekend's elections were an unexpected success. The election was well-organized and well-executed, despite many problems and the short time frame, said the Center for Transatlantic Relations' Daniel Serwer, who is currently in Libya as an election observer for the Carter Center, and even the vote tallying is proceeding in an orderly way and much faster than we have any right to expect.
By the Carter Center's count, the National Forces Alliance will take an impressive 40 or so of the available 80 seats (70 total NFA candidates ran for these spots). However, an additional 120 seats in the 200-member congress have been reserved for independent candidates. Some 2,000 individuals are vying for these seats, and it's safe to assume, according to Cochrane, that the victors will likely be decided by regional and tribal allegiances.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, although it means that some members of the assembly, whose job it will be to name the future prime minister and to draft a constitution, could put local and cultural issues ahead of national ones. Many candidates have promised outright to do so.
Nonetheless, the NFA proved during Saturday's vote that it will be Libya's guiding political force going forward. With Jibril at the helm, the coalition's efforts will mirror those of the National Transitional Council. Now mandated by the people, the NFA will start rebuilding the government, the economy and society. The success of the elections is an extremely positive start for Libya, but the rawness of the political environment will be a monumental challenge for the country's new leadership.