The first bit of good news in Libya’s first free election – assuming the
preliminary results that have trickled out of ballot boxes so far are accurate –
is that a secular-leaning alliance is the winner.
Tunisians and Moroccans in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings, Libyans
have chosen to buck the Islamist trend sweeping across the region. The Muslim
Brotherhood and other Islamists, who were declaring just days before the
elections that they would garner as much as 60 percent of the vote, have been
humbled. They appear to have taken no more than a quarter of the vote – though
Islamists seem to have edged out other parties in the Misrata region, one of the
fiercest strongholds of opposition to the wicked, violent and capricious
dictatorship of Col. Muammar Gaddafi.
The second bit of good news is that
a society that was dominated by autocratic regimes even before Gaddafi wrested
control from King Idris in 1969 has taken the first substantial step in its
cautious transition to a more democratic regime. The elections, which presented
over 3,000 candidates competing for 200 seats, were not without turmoil, but
violence levels were lower than expected. Armed groups in the eastern region of
Benghazi – where Libya’s easily accessible oil reserves, supplying 2% of world
demand, are located – stormed a few polling stations, and tribal groups in the
long-neglected and isolated south tried to sabotage the voting as well. But
voters were not deterred – turnout was over 60%.
It was abundantly clear
that Libyans did not want a return to authoritarianism. A full 97% of Libyans
surveyed by Oxford Research International in January thought the revolution was
absolutely or somewhat right.
BUT THE obstacles on the road to a true
democracy are formidable.
Libya carries the legacy of century-old
fractures – social, economic, geographic and cultural – unhealed since Italy, in
November 1911, first brought together by royal decree the disparate regions of
Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan under the artificial construction known since
1934 as “Libya” – the Greek term for Northwest Africa.
ruthlessly exploited this legacy of fractured national identity, intentionally
maintaining a state of perpetual change with the constant reshuffling of
provincial borders and systems of administration. Street names, place names,
universities, even the names of months were constantly in flux, creating a
feeling of disorientation. In this atmosphere, it was easier to handily repress,
jail, exile or eliminate all potential opponents.
In the post-Gaddafi
era, Libya’s unification under a central government is being threatened by a
myriad of ad hoc militias, police forces, neighborhood guards and miscellaneous
riffraff – not to mention 120 to 130 tribes all armed to the teeth with
questionable loyalties. The oil-rich Benghazi region to the east is at odds with
the traditional seat of power in Tripoli to the west, and Sirte, Gaddafi’s
hometown, is at odds with Misrata, one of the bastions of anti- Gaddafi forces.
The southern region is isolated from the rest of the country.
proceed cautiously, putting in place the sorts of institutions that are a
prerequisite for even the most rudimentary forms of democracy (a representative
parliament, a judiciary, strong law enforcement). It must address legitimate
concerns about the equitable sharing of natural resources and political power
among all the fragmented areas that make up the country. A federalism that
empowers local authority would seem to be best suited to Libya, though there
must be a proper balance between centralized and local power.
order of business – which could be achieved with the aid of NATO forces – is to
disarm the myriad gun-toting militias or incorporate them into a national
Libya has a long road to traverse before it sheds the
debilitating baggage of its troubled history. But the July 7 elections were a
step in the right direction.