How Jibril Outmaneuvered the Libyan Islamists

The preliminary results from Libya’s parliamentary elections are incomplete, but the trend is clear: Former Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance seems headed for a clear victory over rival Islamist parties. The results so far strongly indicate that, while Islamists could regain some ground in individual seats, overall—especially in the party section of the vote—non-Islamists are headed for a decisive victory.

Demographically, Libya is a small country. However, assuming the result is not somehow reversed, it is highly significant for understanding emerging trends in post-dictatorship Arab societies.

It means, first, that the three post-uprising Arab states that have held elections have produced three divergent results. Islamists scored an overwhelming victory in the Egyptian parliamentary elections, and a narrower but clear one in the recent presidential vote. In Tunisia Islamists earned a plurality. But because non-Islamist parties—which collectively have more seats in parliament—are numerous and divided, the Islamist Al-Nahda is the decisive force for the moment.

This is all the more significant in that the three different results have taken place over the same 12-month period in three contiguous North African countries. Sociopolitical conditions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are very different, which helps explain the differing results. But the Libyan election contradicts predictions of an unstoppable Islamist trend, or the idea that Arabs in general will elect Islamist majorities in any free elections held under the current circumstances.

Second, Jibril’s apparent victory may well point the way forward for other non-Islamist forces in future Arab elections. In contrast to analogous groups in Tunisia and Egypt, Jibril’s alliance campaigned on its own merits, emphasizing Libyan nationalism and promising order and stability. It didn’t waste time terrifying voters about the threats posed by Islamists. And it included a certain degree of Muslim religious rhetoric in its campaign, while insisting on a non-Islamist stance.

Jibril was politically astute and speaking to his own people when lecturing Western media not to keep referring to him and his alliance as “liberal” or “secular.” In truth, they are neither, at least in the conventional Western understandings of the terms. But they can be reasonably described as nationalist and certainly as non-Islamist. Therefore, in contemporary Arab terms they could be held to represent a secular and liberal alternative to religious reactionaries.

Crucially, Jibril did not make the mistake of ceding Islamic legitimacy to Islamist groups. Instead, he insisted on a share of it for his own alliance—no doubt crucial to his apparent success. His rhetoric on religion and politics reflects an understanding of the need for Arab non-Islamists to deny Islamists the ability to create the impression of an exclusive claim on religious sentiment and civilizational heritage.

Jibril repeatedly stated that, “The Libyan people don’t need either liberalism or secularism, or pretenses in the name of Islam, because Islam, this great religion, cannot be used for political purposes. Islam is much bigger than that.”

This is precisely the kind of intelligent balancing act that moderate, nationalist and non-Islamist Arab political forces can successfully deploy against Islamist rivals in positive campaigns that emphasize what they have to offer their electorates.

And third, the vote can and should be seen as a repudiation of foreign, and especially Qatari, influence in Libya. Qatar spent a great deal of money backing the Libyan uprising, and conventional wisdom at the time of the fall of Moammar Qaddafi held that it was positioned to be a kingmaker in the country. Libyan resentment over this presumptuousness is reflected in the election results. Since Libya has its own growing petroleum income, it enjoys relative economic independence and cannot be held hostage to foreign aid.

Libyan society will still face huge challenges. It is divided along tribal and clan lines, and the election was somewhat disrupted by eastern federalists demanding regional autonomy or independence. And the emerging Libyan government inherits few functioning national institutions from the former regime. Moreover, it will have to contend with the local dominance of numerous unaccountable militias.

But the economic and political elements for a successful Libyan national recovery are slowly falling into place. The obstacles remain significant, but there is every reason for optimism.

The Libyan election also importantly contradicts widespread doom saying about the inevitability of Islamist victories in contemporary Arab elections or the inability of non-Islamist forces to wage effective election campaigns. Early this year, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic observed, “When [Arabs] stop voting for Islamist parties, I’ll revisit my preliminary conclusion that Islamism is on the rise.”

The Libyan elections mean he and others, in both the West and the Arab world, can begin to think again.