Uncertainty in Libyan politics

Uncertainty in Libyan politics

Authorities are trying to build from scratch primary state institutions like civil service and judiciary.

Voters in Libya, the third country to effect regime change as a result of Arab Spring uprisings, appear to be breaking from the example set by Tunisia and Egypt by backing liberals rather than Muslim fundamentalists in the country's first parliamentary election since 1964.

If the final result bears out unofficial exit polls, the largest party in the 200-seat National Congress could be the Alliance of National Forces.

However, this might not mean the Alliance will hold the majority, since 80 seats in the Congress are for party candidates and 120 directly elected independents who could become king-makers. While the Alliance is said to have won a majority of the party allocation, it remains to be seen with whom the  independents will  affiliate. 

The Alliance is a coalition of 40 political parties, 236 non-governmental organisations and 280 independent figures headed by Mahmoud Jibril, a senior official in the fallen regime who joined the revolt against Muammar Gaddafi, became a member the Transitional National Council and interim prime minister. This coalition enjoys the support of Jibril's tribe, the Warfalla, one of the country's largest and most influential. The Alliance’s main competitor is the Justice and Construction Party, the Libyan offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

The party is led by Muhammad Sawan, who spent eight years in prison, under the ousted regime.  

Among the 100 other parties, many formed within the last few months, contesting this election, three are expected to gain seats: the Watan or Nation Party founded by ultra-conserative Sunni salafis; the secular Centrist National Party founded by Ali Tarhoumi, an economist who had no ties to the former regime; and the National Front Party, a coalition of secular nationalists and fundamentalists. 

Boycott in the east

Sixty per cent of the country's 2.7 million voters cast ballots although there was a boycott in the east around Benghazi, the epicentre of the rebellion, where activists argued that the geographic allocation of seats according to population was unfair and said each region should have one-third of the seats.  The west, where Tripoli is located, was given 100 seats, the east 60 and 40 went to the thinly populated south. Many easterners fear their area, which produces and exports 75 per cent of the country's oil, will be under-represented in parliament and sidelined, as was the case under the Gaddafi regime.

With the aim of defusing tensions, the outgoing National Transitional Council has declared that the new assembly will not be tasked with appointing the commission set to draft the new constitution. A 60-member body will be chosen later in a separate election.

But this compromise is unlikely to end the historic division between Tripolitania in the west and Cyrenaica in the east.  Westerners favour a strong central government while easterners, calling themselves "federalists," are campaigning for decentralisation and regional autonomy. Benghazi, which long opposed Gaddafi's Tripoli- based rule, is prepared to carry on the struggle against the new Tripoli-headquartered regime.

This is only one of the existential problems Libya faces. The state cannot enforce its writ over much of the country which is awash with weapons and peopled with men depending on employment in militias that refuse to give up power in locations they control.

The central, regional and local authorities are trying to build from scratch primary state institutions such as a civil service, judiciary, and regular armed forces. Differences over the role of Islam in the state can spark violence while easterners are prepared to fight for a fair distribution of revenues from oil exports. 

Women have expressed concern that they will be denied their rights if the National Assembly adopts Sharia and fundamentalists impose conservative social practices on the country.

Libyans also have to contend with external interference, particularly by fellow Arabs. The leader of al-Nahda, the Tunisian branch of the Brotherhood, Rashid Ghannoushi, and Qatar's star Muslim television preacher Youssef al-Qaradawi have both turned up in Tripoli with the aim of promoting reconciliation between liberal ecularists and the Brotherhood.

Although the Transitional National Council has distanced itself from these men, they are figures the Libyans do not dare rebuff. Ghannouchi is seen in the West as a moderate, progressive fundamentalist figure, a man with whom the US and Europe can do business. Qaradawi represents the influence conferred on Qatar by its vast natural gas wealth and by the money and arms it contributed to the rebellion against Gaddafi. Both, of course, favour the Brotherhood, in power in Tunisia and is struggling to take power in Egypt.

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