This past Wednesday, Libyans went to the polls to choose the members of a new parliament that is supposed to preside over the rest of the country’s transitional phase amid widening political chaos and deteriorating security. Some 45 percent of the 1.5 million eligible voters registered to vote. That’s a significant drop from the 2.8 million who registered to vote for the General National Congress (GNC) elections in 2012. The drop in turnout offers additional evidence, if anyone needed it, that Libyans are deeply frustrated with the democratic process in their country.
It’s easy to understand why many might feel that there’s little point in voting: Past elections haven’t brought relief from Libya’s festering problems. Indeed, there’s a case to be made that holding elections in a country already beset with widespread violence and deepening polarization can make things worse. In this view, the election results are almost certain to be ignored by parties that didn’t do well at the ballot box and by those who prefer to see an authoritarian regime.
The Islamists suffered a huge defeat in the elections for the Constituent Assembly earlier this year, so they might well be tempted to dismiss the electoral process altogether. Ironically, their skepticism about the utility of voting is echoed by General Khalifa Haftar, their sworn enemy. At one point Haftar demanded a postponement of the elections until the end of his current military campaign against Islamist militias. Later he changed his mind and announced that he would allow the elections to go ahead; he even went so far as to declare a cease-fire in parts of Benghazi where fighting has been going on so that voting could take place. Some see Haftar’s political statements as an indication of his true intentions for Libya, which probably involve authoritarian military rule. Haftar clearly views the military regime of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as a model.
In short, the pessimists would seem to have a strong case these days. And if they wanted to, they could also cite the brutal killing, also on last Wednesday, of Salwa Bugaighis, a prominent lawyer and human rights activist. Salwa had been a longtime critic of the Islamists, and particularly of the extremist militia Ansar al-Sharia, who are now fighting Haftar’s national army forces in Benghazi. Her death is merely the latest in a long string of political assassinations in the city — hardly a good omen for the future of Libyan democracy. (The photo above shows relatives mourning over her grave earlier this week.)
And yet there is also another way to read her death, for the very last political act Salwa carried out on the day of her death was to cast her vote in the parliamentary election.
She was right to do so. Libyans may be suffering from entirely understandable fatigue after three years of chaos, but it is nonetheless crucial to maintain the democratic process. Elections are, in fact, the one way for Libya to overcome the polarizing legacy of the old General National Council which, ultimately, for a variety of reasons, ended up being dominated by Islamists despite their poor showing in the 2012 election to that body. The new parliament has the chance to become the central element in a new and more inclusive political settlement. Last Wednesday’s election gives Libya a new prime minister and a new legislature that will be in a position to reinforce the work of the Constituent Assembly, which is viewed by many Libyans as more successful and legitimate than the GNC. A political settlement based on these ingredients just might save the country.
The international community rightly welcomed the election in the hope that the new parliament can foster a comprehensive political agreement that will address many of Libya’s current woes. Most importantly, the new parliament will need to address the immediate problem presented by Haftar’s anti-Islamist campaign, which has garnered huge public support (especially in eastern Libya). Parliament might need to legalize the operation and bring it under government control by forcing Haftar to accept such a compromise. Such a move would help the country to present united political and military fronts against the threat of extremists and terrorists in the eastern part of the country. Once such a united front is achieved it will become easier for the international community to provide help to the Tripoli authorities during these critical times.
If early projections are to be trusted, the nationalists have secured a significant win over the Islamists in this election. There is fear that the growing numbers of Islamist factions will refuse to respect the election results, choosing instead to declare the democratic process void and launching a political and military campaign to undermine any efforts toward reconciliation or dialogue that might lead to a power-sharing agreement of the kind the country so urgently needs.
Even if the nationalists secure a major win in the election (as initial reports suggest), it is crucial that they avoid the mistakes of the GNC, which adopted an exclusionary approach toward the Islamists. Such an approach would embolden groups like Ansar al-Sharia, who have been arguing that democracy does not work in Libya and that such systems are meant to undermine Islam and sharia by excluding political Islam groups from political life, just as happened to President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in neighboring Egypt.
The votes are still being counted. So far, though, the trends suggest a swing in favor of the "civilian and nationalist" forces. Given that the United Nations and Libya’s friends in the West are putting plans together to facilitate a national dialogue initiative in Libya in the coming weeks, they need to monitor the results of the elections closely in order to understand what Libyan voters were trying to say. One thing the results will almost certainly show is frustration with the religious authorities, given that the civilian and nationalist forces have been calling for the post of the ultraorthodox mufti to be replaced by a Fatwa Council that would be more representative of the country’s religious diversity, including the Sufis and the relatively progressive Abadi school, rather than being dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabis. Only then will the international community be in a position to successfully facilitate a national dialogue that truly reflects the aspirations of the majority of Libyans. Perhaps then Salwa Bugaighis, and all the others who have given their lives for the sake of Libyan democracy, will not have died in vain.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions and a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center. Read the rest of his blog posts here.