Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Election Results and Libya’s National Assembly

by Isobel Coleman
July 26, 2012

Mahmoud Jibril, head of the National Forces Alliance, talks during a news conference at his headquarters in Tripoli on July 8, 2012 (Zohra Bensemra/Courtesy Reuters). Mahmoud Jibril, head of the National Forces Alliance, talks during a news conference at his headquarters in Tripoli on July 8, 2012 (Zohra Bensemra/Courtesy Reuters).


As the results of Libya’s historic National Assembly election are becoming finalized, we are beginning to get a clearer picture of what the Assembly will look like. The 200-member National Assembly has 80 seats reserved for political parties and 120 seats reserved for individual candidates. Out of the 80 party seats, former interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance—a relatively liberal, secular-oriented group—seems to have won 39 out of 80 seats. The Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Construction party appears to have 17 seats, making it the next largest group.

Many journalists and observers were surprised by these election results and interpreted them as comeuppance for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has achieved significant electoral gains in Egypt and Tunisia. However, comparing the Muslim Brotherhood and the broader electoral dynamics of Egypt and Tunisia to those in Libya is like comparing apples and oranges. As I and others have noted, because of Qaddafi’s harsh suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, the organization does not today have the grassroots organizing power, historical record, and familiar brand that it does in countries like Egypt and Tunisia. Jibril’s tribal affiliation, well-executed election strategy, and leadership role in the revolution also played a part in his party’s success, among other factors.

In short, I don’t interpret Libya’s election results as a turning of the tide against political Islam in North Africa by any means: it is simply the first step in what will undoubtedly be a long, and at times painful, process of Libyans figuring out the new political landscape of their country. Additionally, the political affiliations and dynamics of the new National Assembly are far from certain. Because two-thirds of the National Assembly members must approve key decisions, the assembly members who are unaffiliated with Jibril’s party or the Muslim Brotherhood could decide the direction of the National Assembly. Many of the 120 individual candidates were elected because of their role and prominence in their local communities, not because of any particular political party connections, ideology, or policy positions, so they are still unknown quantities in the National Assembly.

The role of women assembly members is also uncertain. Women gained an estimated 33 seats out of the 80 party seats and additionally won one of the individual seats, giving them approximately 17 percent of the National Assembly. This is far more than the paltry 2 percent of seats women have in Egypt’s new parliament, but less than the 23 percent they have in Tunisia. The high number of political party seats women hold is primarily a result of election regulations that compelled political parties to alternate the names of male and female candidates on electoral ballots. Without this boost, women would have had very little representation in the new parliament. In that sense, the party list quota was effective. But the experience of women elected through quotas in other Middle East countries like Iraq, where they have a 25 percent quota in parliament, has been mixed at best. How effective the Libyan women in parliament will be remains to be seen, especially when it comes to protecting women’s legal rights.

Post a Comment 3 Comments

  • Posted by RE

    Why even bother mandating these female members as tokens when they will not have much impact?

  • Posted by Libyan Citizen

    The results of the Libyan elections of the 200 member National Congress, subject to so much analysis and speculation in the media, are quite widely misunderstood.
    First, it is important to understand the political landscape in Libya. Political parties or movements were never a very strong force on the ground in Libya. They were not only outlawed and persecuted under Gaddafi’s regime, which equated party affiliation with treason over the past four decades, but were also illegal under the preceding monarchy. Furthermore, Libyans have over at least the last three decades combatted the Gaddafi regime with apathy rather than through political movements or ideology.
    Contrary to what the writer states, however, the Moslem Brotherhood is the best organized movement in Libya, in existence for decades. Gaddafi’s crackdown on their organization in the late nineties limited but did not stop their development, since they moved their center of activity among the Libyan diaspora while continuing some low profile activity inside the country. The also benefited from support, in the form of training and financing, from other branches of the organization, especially in Egypt.
    Since the middle of the last decade, the Brotherhood have associated themselves more with the regime rather than with the opposition. They withdrew from activities of the Libyan opposition outside of Libya, refusing to call for regime change, and insisting that their activity is centered more on preaching good behavior and calling for adherence to Islam than purely political activity. One of their most prominent leaders, Ali Sallabi, worked quite closely with Saif Gaddafi, and played a prominent role in reconciliation of the Libya Fighting Group members with the regime and release from prison. This gave the Brotherhood a certain margin of manoeuver to continue their activities without fear of reprisals from the regime.
    Nevertheless, it must be said that their degree of organization and activity on the ground is a far cry from that of their colleagues in Egypt, for example. They never had the chance to work and organize openly, nor provide social services, in which their Egyptian colleagues excelled. This limited their connect with the street, and did not allow them to overcome the natural public mistrust of secretive organizations and of those with relationships with foreign powers, be that with the international, mainly Egyptian, Moslem Brotherhood organization, or with the state of Qatar. Qatar had played a major role in supporting the Libyan revolution, which gained it a lot of goodwill among the population up to the time of the revolution’s victory last August. The tide started turning then when Qatar was perceived to have shown flagrant bias and promotion of certain factions, mainly the Moslem Brotherhood and other Islamist groups such as the Alwatan Party of the ex-Libyan Fighting Group’s Abdulhakim Belhaj, mainly through its news channel Aljazeera and through direct financing. This has lost Qatar most of the goodwill it had gained, to be replaced by the natural nationalist reaction against foreign powers, as well as those local forces they support, including the Moslem Brotherhood.
    On the other hand, Mahmud Jebril’s Jebril’s National Forces Alliance (NFA) is really nothing more than a collection of individuals, some of whom have come together to form political groupings they call parties. The ideological homogeneity of these groupings, and most importantly their party discipline, is still unexplored and uncertain. They have rallied around JEBRIL as the most prominent leader with a practical approach to resolving Libya’s problems.
    The election victory was really Mahmud Jebril’s not the NFA’s. JEBRIL was the most prominent campaigner, touring the country, giving speeches and engaging in discussions with people, and giving numerous TV interviews. The campaign posters of the NFA consisted mainly of a big picture of JEBRIL urging a vote for the NFA. Actually, the Moslem Brotherhood have attacked the NFA’s campaign, claiming that most voters thought they were voting for Jebril, who was not a candidate rather than others on his party lists. (Jebril, like other members of the government and National Congress during the revolution were not allowed to run for membership of the National Congress due to a rule that had been set to avoid that people would unduly benefit from their role in the revolution for other than altruistic reasons).
    An eloquent speaker very knowledgeable of Libya’s development problems and potential solutions, gained from his experience as a development strategy consultant and during his two-year stint as planning minister in Gaddafi’s government, Jebril succeeded in impressing on many Libyans that he knows how to bring order and progress to their homeland. Jebril also succeeded in neutralizing, to a certain extent, the religious edge of the Brotherhood, by insisting on him being a pious Moslem, and on the importance of religion in his life and his thinking. This has struck a chord with Libyans, many of whom adopted the same position, that they don’t need the Brotherhood to tell them what God wants of them. Furthermore, Jebril gained prominence from his role as prime minister of the revolution during its first six months, being credited with gaining international support for it, which was critical to its victory. All Libyans remember Jebril meeting with French president Nicolas Sarkozy on the stairs of the Elysee Palace during the first days of the revolution, which was later followed with the French recognition of the new regime, and most importantly the air campaign which saved Benghazi from being destroyed and plundered by Gaddafi’s forces last March, and was the first turn of the tide that led to the fall of the regime.
    The main conclusion that can be drawn from the election results, then, is that most people would rather be governed by pragmatist technocrats with patriotic credentials than by Islamist ideologues connected with foreign powers. They have voted for Mahmud Jebril rather than the Moslem Brotherhood.
    The big question now is who will succeed to rule Libya over the upcoming transitional period. Although Jebril’s NFA has the largest block in the newly elected National Congress, almost 50% of the number of seats allocated to political party lists, 39 out of 80 seats, this is barely 20% of the total. The election of the other 120 seats was on individual basis. Furthermore, his Alliance is an untested inexperienced collection of individuals and groupings with no clear common ideological ground, nor strong party structure. Both Jebril and the Islamists will surely be able to gather around them a number of other smaller parties and members who were elected as individuals.
    The question is whether they will be able to form a coalition that will be stable enough not only to form a government, but to keep it in place long enough that it can achieve anything.

  • Posted by Andrew Craig-Bennett

    I would like to congratulate “Libyan Citizen” on a remarkably clear and enlightening contribution. it is many years since I lived in Libya, but his description of the attitude of people is one that I recognise.

    I would just like to add that the Moslem Brotherhood was not just tolerated but welcomed under the monarchy – King Idris drew his legitimacy partly from standing up to the victorious WW2 Allies who wanted to partition the country and largely from his status as a Senussi.

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