Libya’s Post-Qaddafi Party

Elections are coming up fast. Will Libya fragment, or pull together?


These are busy times for Mustafa Abdel Jalil, chairman of Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC). After hosting the leaders of Turkey, France, and Britain in Tripoli last week, he met U.S. President Barack Obama on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Tuesday, Sept. 20. 

Little news has emerged from the meeting, but Libya’s transition toward democracy — a daunting prospect for an interim government that has successfully gained international recognition but must now start planning elections in a country with no real history of party politics — was no doubt high on the agenda. "We all know what is needed," said Obama. "A transition that is timely. New laws and a constitution that uphold the rule of law. Political parties and a strong civil society. And, for the first time in Libyan history, free and fair elections."

Abdel Jalil said in March that NTC members would not be allowed to stand in any future polls, meaning that Libya’s current leadership will theoretically play no formal role once an elected government takes over. That sets the stage for the political arena to be opened up to popular participation for what is effectively the first time in the country’s colorful history.

Some Libyans might just about remember their country’s most recent multiparty elections, held in 1952 soon after the U.N.-led unification of the country from three provinces. Widely believed to have been manipulated by the Benghazi-based monarchical government, the polls triggered unrest that led to the dissolution of the main opposition force in Tripolitania, the country’s western region, and the subsequent banning of all political parties. The crackdown squashed hopes that a functioning democracy might take root and left tribal, regional, and financial influences with the most power in shaping how Libya was run.

Today’s transition has been complicated by the long shadow of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s incoherent and contradictory Jamahiriya system, which claimed to be a direct rule of the masses, but in reality involved containing tribal and regional allegiances through force and money while preventing the emergence of parallel political or religious power bases. Qaddafi’s regime crushed local Islamist movements, like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, and in its earlier decades frequently assassinated exiled opposition leaders in Europe and further afield.

Over the years, Qaddafi’s incomplete and unpredictable ideological shifts were made not in response to popular pressure or organized political opposition, but rather to ensure his regime’s survival by moving with the times. He outlived, and gave up on, both the pan-Arab nationalism that inspired him to seize power in 1969 and the quasi-socialist ideology that lost much of its raison d’être after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In economic terms, Qaddafi’s ultrasocialist bent of the 1970s and 1980s gave way to liberalization in the early 2000s that was meaningful enough to spark an internal clash between economic reformers, led by his son Saif al-Islam, and an old guard led by Prime Minister Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi with vested interests to protect. Around the same time, a broader U-turn repositioned Tripoli from defiant pariah to an apparent Western ally that embraced its former nemeses in Washington and London.

In short, Qaddafi left no meaningful ideological legacy behind. It will be fascinating to see what type of political parties — and there can be no democratic transition without them — emerge in his wake. But the NTC needs to start licensing them relatively soon if it intends to meet its ambitious target of holding elections next year.

Youth movements that played a central role in organizing protests are likely to form parties, though they may lack the ideological glue to hold them together in the post-Qaddafi era. Returning Libyan exiles could also try to form parties, though they may well be unknown inside Libya and struggle to build support. It would be surprising if something similar to Tunisia’s moderate Islamist Renaissance or Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party, formed in April by the Muslim Brotherhood, were also not established. Libyan society is generally conservative, and parties with Islam as their guiding tenet should garner a great deal of support.

Political parties and their support bases might be most shaped by regionalism. This force is not as strong as it was in 1950, when U.N. commissioner Adrian Pelt invited seven representatives from each of Libya’s three provinces — Tripolitania, Cyrenaica, and Fezzan — to discuss the formation of a new national assembly. But though pro-NTC forces may have been united under the banner of defeating Qaddafi and still appear to be holding together, regional divides are likely to make a heavy imprint on any new government.

Regional factionalism is also a worry because this year’s uprising has happened in stages, with some towns and cities leading the revolt from the outset, others joining it later on, and yet more still resisting. In Benghazi, there is concern over the prospect of the NTC’s fledgling institutions being moved to Tripoli after being based in Libya’s second-largest city for more than six months. Some Misratis want political reward for the role that their brigades played in the fighting and for the human sacrifices their city made. From its base in the western mountains, the Amazigh, or Berber, community, deliberately marginalized under Qaddafi but militarily essential to his overthrow, is seeking a much greater cultural and political representation in the future Libya.

A party could also emerge to represent towns like Sirte, Sabha, or Bani Walid, where there is at least some genuine popular opposition to the NTC. Those still willing to fight for Qaddafi’s cause will sooner or later be subdued militarily, but the rhetoric that he continues to promote — that Libya has been "invaded" by neo-imperial powers — may resonate among those who dislike being supervised by a transitional authority that owes its existence to a Western-led military intervention.

As with Tunisia’s interim government, which blacklisted many senior members of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, the NTC will also need to decide who should be allowed to form political parties. This could be particularly divisive when it comes to figures like Abdel-Salam Jalloud, Qaddafi’s schoolmate and one of his closest allies before a public spat in the mid-1990s. Jalloud has already announced that he is recruiting members for a new "Homeland Justice and Freedom Party" that will compete in elections.

First, though, the NTC must overcome the dilemma of quelling the remaining areas of resistance without alienating large numbers of Libyans who will need to participate in any successful democratic transition. The southern city of Sabha, a vital gateway to the resource-rich Wadi al-Hayat and home to more than 250,000 people, is still being fought over. No genuinely inclusive national reconciliation can start until it is stable, but delays to an already ambitious election timetable could prove unpopular, just as they have in Egypt. Parts of the northeast have already been Qaddafi-free for six months, and people’s patience will be tested.

A greater danger is that the different militias under the NTC umbrella could morph into the armed wings of new political parties, a prospect that significantly raises the risk of civil conflict or even, when combined with the strong regional affiliations, the creation of states within a state. Libya might lend itself to a system of devolved rule, but this carries its own problems, as persistent squabbling over Iraq’s oil resources has shown.

None of these issues are insurmountable, but they need to be addressed soon if Libyans are to cast their ballots next year. In neighboring Tunisia, which at least has some past experience of holding elections — however rigged they might have been — the interim government began licensing new parties barely six weeks after Ben Ali fled. More than 100 have been established in the run-up to Oct. 23’s constituent assembly vote. Although Tunisia’s transition has not been perfect, a potentially bloodier road lies ahead in Libya, where the electorate will wield guns as well as votes.

<p> Alex Warren is co-author of The Battle for the Arab Spring, to be published in April. </p>