- By Mohamed EljarhMohamed Eljarh is a writer for Foreign Policy's Democracy Lab and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter at @Eljarh.
The military-orchestrated overthrow of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy has captured the attention of the Arab Spring nations. The impact of the events in Cairo may be most significant for Egypt’s neighbor Libya, which has been watching the situation unfold with mixed feelings.
Unlike its counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia, the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood did not do well last year in the elections for the General National Congress (GNC), the interim legislature. Libyans do not trust the Muslim Brotherhood due to its connection to the global Muslim Brotherhood organization. The party is accused of having no national agenda and little loyalty to the country.
However, despite its defeat, many Libyans hold the belief that the party still managed to maximize its influence in politics through its various coalitions within the GNC, its powerful regional alliances, and its ties to Islamist militias.
The Muslim Brotherhood has faced Libyan anger on many different occasions, especially in eastern Libya. Their office in Tobruk was ransacked and the opening ceremony for their Justice and Construction party branch in El Marj was canceled due to protests.
The events in Egypt have had an immediate impact that goes well beyond the small celebrations that took place in Beghazi, Tobruk, and Zintan on the night of Morsy’s ousting. The two biggest political parties in Libya, the liberal-leaning National Forces Alliance and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party, have suspended their membership in the GNC following mounting public anger and frustration at the GNC’s performance. The withdrawal has been seen as a political maneuver to try and protect the parties from public anger by pretending to side with the public’s demands, especially after increasing calls for a ban on political parties in Libya until the country’s constitution has been drafted. The moves by the two parties come after calls for a mass protest movement similar to the Egyptian Tamarod movement.
Pressure is mounting to make the GNC more accountable. The recent tribal conference held in Zintan to discuss the political and security situation in the country issued a statement urging the GNC to stop political infighting and to suspend the work of political parties in the country until the constitution is approved. The conference has also urged the GNC to adopt the country’s 1951 constitution, which was drafted with the help of the United Nations at the time of independence from Italy. The statement went on to warn that the tribes will call for the GNC’s dissolution if it fails to respond to their demands.
The city of Misrata notably boycotted the conference. However, this comes as no surprise. The reason is the intensifying rivalry between Misrata and Zintan. Misrata is usually associated with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamist bloc within the GNC. Zintan is linked to the National Forces Alliance and its founder Mahmoud Jibril. The political scene in Libya is currently characterized by ideological, regional, and tribal alliances. The Muslim Brotherhood, and subsequently Misrata, sees the tribal conference in Zintan as a threat. In recent weeks, there has been an escalation of tensions between the Islamist militias (backed by the Muslim Brotherhood and Misrata) and tribal militias (backed by Zintan and other powerful eastern tribes). The lack of a unified national army makes the prospects for a peaceful protest movement for change in Libya almost impossible.
The Libyan government’s official response to Egypt came from Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, who emphasized the strategic and historical relationship between both countries and expressed respect for the will of the Egyptian people. However, the Libyan ambassador to Egypt, Fayez Jibril, was less diplomatic. While also emphasizing Libya’s commitment to Egypt and the Egyptian people, he went a step further by describing the recent events as a popular uprising. He also promised that all the deals signed with Morsy’s government will be honored, and pledged more Libyan investment in the Egyptian economy.
As expected, the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya was very quick to condemn the military coup in Egypt, calling it a dangerous setback for democracy in the Arab Spring countries.
The Muslim Brotherhood in Libya is anything but popular, making President Morsy’s ouster a welcome event to many Libyans. However, people also realize the effect that these events can have on their country. Libya does not have a strong army that can uphold the will of the people and protect the national interest against autocratic theocracy or any other forms of dictatorship. The Egyptian precedent could well mean that Libya’s Islamists will not trust the democratic process and might choose to boycott it altogether, perhaps by turning to violence.
The ousting of Morsy showed a divide within Libya. Those who are sympathetic to the Islamists’ cause say that having an army that is stronger than democracy is dangerous and could lead to repetitive coups in the country and could undermine the will of the people. However, those who oppose the idea of political Islam in Libya believe having a national army must be a priority. In their view, the events in Egypt show that a national army can be the means through which the will of the people is upheld and democracy safeguarded.
The idea that the army could be a central tool of nation-building has a long history. In post revolution Libya — if the country cannot produce a unified and effective military, its survival is likely to be in doubt. But if the prospects for a strong national army in Libya have been uncertain over the past two years, they are now definitely so in light of the recent events in Egypt, which will undoubtly undermine the trust between the government and the Islamist militias that have so far refused to put down their weapons.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.