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.