On July 21, Libya’s Higher National Elections Commission (HNEC) announced the results of the country’s second parliamentary elections since the overthrow of the Qaddafi regime three years ago. It amounts to a devastating defeat for the Islamists. The announcement comes at a critical moment. Rival militias are continuing their fight over control of the international airport in Tripoli, which they have turned into a battleground amid the threat of full-scale civil war. The battle for the airport and the issuing of the election results might seem to have little connection at first glance. In fact, they are intimately linked.
In the past two years, Libya’s first democratically elected parliament, the General National Congress (GNC), has failed to address the country’s economic, political, and security problems. This has prompted growing public animosity toward the GNC. Politicians and political groups neglected to address that deepening disillusionment, instead frittering away public support by focusing on power struggles and the pursuit of narrow-minded political interests. That, in turn, prompted nationwide demonstrations earlier this year, in which citizens demanded the dissolution of the GNC and called for early elections. The Islamist-dominated GNC dismissed these demands and vowed to continue in power until the ratification of a new constitution.
In February, the GNC’s failure to respond to these popular movements prompted ex-general Khalifa Haftar to launch an apparent coup against the GNC. Haftar’s coup seemed feeble at first, and politicians laughed it off. Yet it offered an early warning sign of what was to come.
Since then, Haftar has managed to capitalize on rising anti-Islamist sentiment by launching a full-scale military campaign against Islamist militias based in the East. He’s received strong expressions of popular support: Cities, tribes, and government officials have all voiced their approval. This pushed the GNC, after months of prevarication, to stop messing around and finally announce an election date, which was set for June 25.
The Islamist forces faced a devastating loss at the ballot box, and now face a genuine existential threat. After the vote, they tried their best to delay the announcement of the election results by any means available to them, overwhelming the HNEC with complaints about the electoral process. They also upped the ante militarily by attacking the airport, hoping that the conflict would prevent the new parliament from convening. (The photo above shows the burning remains of an airplane at Tripoli International Airport.)
Given the strong showing of the anti-Islamist forces in the elections, the Islamists now fear a legislative backlash that could include new anti-terrorism laws, financial and political support for Haftar’s military campaign, direct election of a national president, and perhaps even a repeal of the controversial political isolation law (which excluded many Qaddafi-era figures from participating in the new political order). Islamists believe such measures would severely reduce their influence in Libyan politics.
As a result, the Islamists have now opted for more extreme and unorthodox tactics in an attempt to reach some sort of bargain that would guarantee them a role in Libya’s future. In their recent discussions with European diplomats, Muslim Brotherhood leaders have said that they will only end their assault on the airport once Haftar ends his military operations. It seems that they are asking the new parliament and the international community to offer them assurances and guarantees through political dialogue and an inclusive political process. In return, however, the majority of Libyans, the new parliament, and the international community will expect the Islamists to accept the will of the Libya people expressed through the ballot box, and to refrain from using unorthodox tactics, such as using armed militias to influence the political process.
With this background in mind, it is essential that the new parliament open its doors for dialogue and embrace the more moderate elements within the Isalmist camp. This could result in a united front against the rise of extremism, a real threat to Libya’s democratic transition. Libya’s new parliament must avoid the path of exclusionary politics, and must not see politics as a zero-sum game. At this critical time, Libya needs to adopt a teamwork mentality. That is the only way the country can achieve progress.
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.