The only question is how much Islamic law, how soon.
Libya held its first democratic election on Saturday and the preliminary results show the liberal National Forces Alliance ahead. The alliance isn’t declaring victory just yet, but the lead is definitive enough for two Islamist parties to admit that that the liberals got the most votes. The West shouldn’t get too excited just yet, though. The liberals still support having Sharia Law as a main source of legislation, and if they only get a plurality, the Islamists could still drive the next government.
Voter turnout was above 60 percent. The election will determine the makeup of the new General National Congress, a 200-member body consisting of 80 seats won by political parties and 120 seats won by independent candidates. This assembly will form the next government and oversee the writing of Libya’s new constitution, deciding the role of Sharia Law.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s Libyan party, the Justice and Construction Party, admits that the National Forces Alliance (NFA) will get the most votes. The NFA is ahead in Tripoli and, surprisingly, Benghazi, where unofficial results indicate the liberals took about 70% of the vote. The city of Benghazi was known as an Islamist stronghold from which many jihadists that fought U.S. forces in Iraq came from. The Muslim Brotherhood’s strongest support is coming from the southern part of the country.
There are five major parties competing. On the liberal side, there is the NFA that believes that Sharia Law should be the main source of legislation, but not the sole source. The NFA’s platform specifically calls for freedom for all religions, including those of foreigners. There is also the Centrist National Party, which doesn’t mention Sharia Law at all in its platform, and the National Front Party, which also doesn’t mention it, but believes Islam should influence governance in general. The two major Islamist parties are the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party and the Al-Watan Party, which appeals more to the Salafists. The Al-Watan Party was founded by Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, the militia commander linked to Al-Qaeda.
The apparent liberal victory over the Islamists is surprising for three reasons: The precedent since the Arab Spring began has been for Islamists to win elections; the Muslim Brotherhood is the most organized party in Libya and the NFA’s leader, former Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, previously lost a power struggle with the Islamists when he led the National Transitional Council.
The secularist-Islamist struggle began shortly after Muammar Qaddafi’s regime was overthrown. The Muslim Brotherhood had an immediate advantage because it had networks outside of Libya helping it, and the Gulf country of Qatar lavished the Islamists with funding and support.
First, the Muslim Brotherhood out-maneuvered the secularists in Benghazi to have Sharia declared as the “basic source” of legislation for the interim government. Then, the aforementioned Abdel-Hakim Belhaj teamed up with Sheikh Ali Sallabi, a Muslim Brotherhood cleric backed by Qatar, to challenge Jibril’s leadership. Under Jibril, the National Transitional Council was resistant to the Islamist agenda. Vice Chairman Abdel-Hafidh Ghoga even said, “There is no place for an Islamic state in Libya.”
Sallabi and Belhaj brought the fight into the open after Jibril began trying to rein in militias. Belhaj attended a meeting alongside the Qatari armed forces’ chief of staff and vowed, “You will never do this without me.” Sallabi began openly accusing Jibril and his allies of being “extreme secularists” worse than Qaddafi, essentially branding them as enemies of Islam.
Jibril resigned after Qaddafi was killed and initially denied that he was outmatched. It was apparent that that was the case. He conceded in one interview that “The political struggle requires finances, organization, arms and ideologies. I am afraid I don’t have any of this.” After he stepped down, he began speaking out about how Qatar is backing the Islamist side.
The chairman of the National Transitional Council began implementing aspects of Sharia Law. One of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Islamist associates became the Religious Affairs Minister and got right to work instituting Sharia. On its way out, the National Transitional Council said that the next government should “make Sharia the main source of legislation” and “this should not be subject to a referendum.”
Jibril and the Muslim Brotherhood have already begun making plans for the next government. One of Jibril’s advisors said that he’d likely become the next President and the Muslim Brotherhood would get the post of Prime Minister and the ministries. Of course, the election results could change the arrangement. The top military leadership, which is secular, is adamantly opposed to having Islamists run the Defense Ministry.
It is too soon to celebrate Jibril’s expected victory. Official results will not come in until at least Wednesday. It’s very possible that the secularists will only have a plurality, essentially giving the Islamists veto power if they unite against a decision. It is also unclear how the seats for independent candidates will affect the balance. Most independents lean towards either side without officially belonging to a party.
It’s a positive development that Jibril’s bloc appears to be the top vote-getter but the struggle over the future of Libya and the role of Sharia Law will continue.
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