Despite the Rise of the 'Liberals', the Future of Libya Remains Uncertain

The liberal camp's apparent victory in the elections sparks hope in the West, but in order to lead the country, they will have to compromise with the extreme Islamist bloc.

The Western media celebration over the victory of the “liberals” in the Libyan elections may be somewhat premature.

True, according to the unofficial results, the non-Islamist camp (or the “liberal camp” as the media insists on referring to it), headed by Mahmoud Jibril, a political science professor who was educated in the United States, seems to have won the parliamentary elections, but one has to remain cautious for now. For one thing, there are no confirmed results yet from Libya, at least not as of this writing. It’s hard to know if the leaks by “unofficial sources” are based on real data, either full or partial, or more on wishful thinking.

Still, if one assumes that there was indeed a victory by the liberal camp, the Arab Spring has generated its first secular breeze (in Libyan terms, of course), and not another Islamic winter. The Muslim Brotherhood, according to its representatives in Libya, got no more than 25 percent of the votes, while the most extreme bloc, headed by jihadist Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, was left well behind.

It’s hard, however, to project from what has happened in Libya on events elsewhere, and as with the other countries that experienced the Arab Spring, each case must be judged on its own merits. The case of Libya can tell us nothing about a new trend in the Middle East, nor is it evidence of what Syria’s future might be the day after Bashar Assad disappears, for several reasons.

First, Libya’s liberal camp isn’t at all “liberal” in the Western sense. It’s only so in comparison to the other movements in the country, and it certainly doesn’t resemble the liberal movements in the United States or Europe. Prof. Yehudit Ronen, a Middle East and Libya expert at Bar-Ilan University, says it’s hard to define the “liberal force” in Libya.

Secondly, she says, the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya is not the same homogeneous, united and coherent group as it is in Egypt. The movement was founded in Libya in 1949, and established itself in the eastern district of Kireneika, under the Senussi regime. Once Gadhafi came to power, the oppression of the group began, similar to the pursuit of the group in Egypt under Gamal Abdel Nasser.

“Like the Muslim Brotherhood in other places, they did not remain in a frozen format but broke up into several different forces, some of them militant which, over time, became part of the world jihad communities,” says Ronen.

At the same time, Gadhafi declared war on the Brotherhood in Libya, and prevented them from setting up the same type of civil infrastructure that served them so efficiently in Egypt and in Gaza. In other words, the Muslim Brotherhood is weaker in Libya.

Perhaps the most problematic point with regard to Libya’s future is the question mark surrounding the response of the extreme Islamist bloc headed by Belhaj, if Jibril’s people are indeed declared the winners.

“You have to be very careful about applying Western concepts to Libya,” says Ronen. “No matter what the election results, there is no certainty that they will fashion Libya’s political future. Jibril got massive encouragement from the West, both logistical and financial, and besides Jibril, who is the former transitional prime minister, the camp is headed by Ali al-Tarhouni, who was the finance and oil minister in the transitional government of Mustafa Abdul Jalil.

“But you have to remember that Jibril himself resigned his post for fear of his life and Belhaj was his most virulent opponent,” Ronen continues. “The latter accused Jibril of being ‘too secular,’ and the assassination of [rebel commander] General Abdel Fattah Younes al Obeidi last July was a seminal moment for Jibril, who decided he wanted to live.

“The question now is the response of Belhaj, who is backed by the brothers Ismail and Ali Salabi. These two brothers have a lot of influence and political, financial and military power; they can operate armed forces. You can’t make light of them and if the [election] results are not to their liking from an Islamist perspective, there’s no way they’ll sit with their arms folded. The results don’t guarantee everything.”

Jibril himself will not be able to serve in parliament; in fact, none of the officials of the transitional government is permitted to do so. But he has great influence, and his picture was featured in most of the political propaganda leaflets.

The Libyan parliament has 200 delegates, 80 of whom were chosen from party lists and another 120 independently, which will make it even more difficult to understand the final results even when they are published.

Jibril is from the Warfalla tribe, Libya’s largest tribe, numbering around one million people out of a population of six million. Still, one cannot relate to Jibril’s apparent accomplishment in a tribal context.

“The tribal element exists, but the reality in Libya is not the same as in the middle of the previous century,” says Ronen. “There’s been an urbanization process, the oil industry changed the reality, and one’s geographic base became no less important that the tribal one. Sometimes the two overlap, but not always. The Zintan and Misrata militias got their names from their cities and not from any tribe.”

Ronen, like many others, advises us to wait patiently, since it will be a while before we’ll be able to understand in which direction Libya is headed.