The Middle East Channel

Throw out the playbook for Libya’s elections

After over 40 years of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Jamahiriya — a by design stateless society of purported direct rule by the popular masses — Libya’s political transition was always going to be sui generis. Other Arab autocrats may have subverted elections and ignored their constitutions, but in most cases at least the motions of representative democracy ...


After over 40 years of Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Jamahiriya — a by design stateless society of purported direct rule by the popular masses — Libya’s political transition was always going to be sui generis. Other Arab autocrats may have subverted elections and ignored their constitutions, but in most cases at least the motions of representative democracy existed. This was not the case in Libya, where the law organizing the country’s first elections is scheduled for publication this weekend. As Othman El-Mugirhy, the chair of the committee that drafted the law eloquently put it, "Libya has no institutions, it is a state of ashes."

One legacy of the almost perpetual administrative flux that Qaddafi’s unique governing model engendered is that individuals rather than political parties will likely contest Libya’s forthcoming elections. This has all sorts of unusual consequences, not least of which is potentially turning on its head the widespread belief in the region that early elections favor the Muslim Brotherhood.

Political parties come in for a particularly hard time in Muammar al-Qaddafi’s Green Book, which lays out his Third Universal Theory (the Brother Leader’s proposed alternative to capitalism and communism). Describing political parties as the abortion of democracy and their members as traitors, the Green Book makes the case that parties split society by ensuring "the rule of the part over the whole" and are the "contemporary model of dictatorship" intended to rob people of their right to govern themselves directly.

The decades of demonization of political parties by Qaddafi have left a lasting impact on the Libyan political scene. Many of the nascent political entities in the new Libya seem to prefer to call themselves "movements" or "alliances" rather than use the word party, which still frequently draws a visceral negative reaction.

Countrywide focus group research conducted in Libya by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in November 2011 tends to confirm this anecdotal impression. NDI found participants’ reactions to the idea of political parties "range from ignorance to skepticism to outright hostility." Many were concerned that political parties are potentially divisive and could cause conflict among Libyans at a time when the country needs to be united. One participant repeated word for word a Green Book bromide that the larger the number of parties, the greater the divisions and struggle within society.

It is perhaps unsurprising then that the electoral law prepared by Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) is widely expected to propose a system in which voters would choose from individual candidates rather than party lists in selecting representatives for the country’s constitutional assembly. The closest international analogue to this type of electoral system is that used in Afghanistan, where its application has contributed to a parliament of individuals rather than parties.

In Libya, such a system makes it likely that candidates in June’s elections for the country’s constitutional assembly will rely on social institutions other than parties to attract votes. In other words, tribal, regional, and family networks are likely to trump political and ideological visions in the coming polls.

This has real implications for the prospects of Libya’s best-organized political party and the only one that scored name recognition in the NDI focus groups — the Muslim Brotherhood. Simply put, being the only political party that ordinary people can name might not be such a good thing among a population that has been acculturated to view parties as synonymous with hidden agendas and narrow interests.

Paradoxically, the picture for the Brothers is further complicated by the conservative and pious nature of Libyan society. Libyans have enormous respect for and close observation of the precepts of Islam. Even those political actors who might self-identify as liberal support a central role for Islam in Libyan public life (very few Libyan actors with serious political aspirations would want to brand themselves as "secular"). To wit an October public opinion poll conducted in eastern Libya by the International Republican Institute (IRI) found that 69 percent of respondents disapproved of the notion of a secular state and 85 percent agreed that religion should be part of government.

In this environment, a political platform by the Brothers calling for an Islamic reference for the new Libyan state is unremarkable and perhaps even redundant. This is because a substantial role for Islam in the public square is broadly taken for granted by the public. In fact, it already exists in Libya to a significantly greater extent than it does for the country’s Egyptian and Tunisian neighbors. Therefore, the Libyan public may end up more focused on how candidates propose to govern transparently and effectively rather than whether their new representatives will pass laws in conformity with Islam (which many Libyans take as given).

Moreover, the Islamic faith of most Libyans is earnest and straightforward. In this setting, the appearance of attempting to exploit religion to attract votes runs the risk of causing offense and politically backfiring. This is perhaps also reflected in the IRI poll, in which even in the presumed Brotherhood stronghold of Libya’s conservative east support for the Brothers (9 percent strongly positive and 22 percent somewhat positive) does not approach that of revolutionary fighters (67 percent and 24 percent) or the 17th of February youth movement that launched the revolution (76 percent and 20 percent).

There are signs indicating that the Muslim Brothers and other Islamists understand the formula for electoral success will be different in Libya than elsewhere in the region. One of Libya’s leading clerics has stated that Islamists should not run on an ideological platform but rather a national and patriotic one. Along these lines, other political movements in Libya’s east claim that the Brothers have initiated exploratory talks with them on possible electoral alliances and recruitment of candidates.

The Brotherhood’s focus on electable individuals rather than ideological purity and reaching out to local movements makes sense as part of a strategy to enhance the Libyan bona fides of an organization that is said by some of its opponents to be overly dependent upon external support. Prominent Libyan Islamist figures have dismissed this talk as cynical political scaremongering and a "big lie," that along with the choice of an individual candidate based system is intended to blunt their electoral prospects.

Be this as it may, it does appear that the Brothers have some work to do in building a grassroots political network inside Libya. Many of the Brotherhood’s members were first introduced to the movement while studying abroad during the 1970s and 1980s. More recently most of the movement was forced into exile during the 1990s after a brutal campaign by Qaddafi’s security forces crushed the organization. Meanwhile last November in Benghazi, during its first public meeting in Libya for decades after being banned by Qaddafi, the Brotherhood may have inadvertently bolstered its internationalist reputation by emphasizing regional Islamic solidarity and giving prominent speaking roles to Tunisia’s Ennahda Party and a Syrian Muslim Brother.

None of this is to say that the Brothers will not perform well in next June’s elections. They are universally acknowledged as the best-organized political movement in the country and are likely to be well financed. But the unique landscape of post-Qaddafi Libya means that the Brothers will not be able to simply follow the fraternal campaign playbook from the more socio-culturally diverse Tunisia and Egypt. Like other Libyan political contenders, the Brothers figure to rise and fall in the coming elections based on the social capital of their individual candidates rather than a strong ideological party platform.

This makes it difficult to predict what Libya’s constitutional assembly will look like. Political Islamists, many who were in exile and are urban based professionals, may need time to establish the local networks necessary to succeed in an individual based electoral system. This is especially because the system will likely have a geographic spread that intentionally over represents small towns and rural areas. Given the necessary space to bring their resources and organizational advantages to bear the Brothers could undoubtedly achieve this, but will they have the time to do so?

What does seem certain is that conventional wisdom is unlikely to apply in Libya’s polls. A strong party brand could well be something to run away from. Locally prominent figures heretofore unknown in Tripoli and the outside world could emerge and triumph. Most startlingly, and counter to the experience in the rest of the region, Libya’s tight electoral calendar could conceivably work against rather than for the Brothers.

Sean Kane is a Truman Security Fellow and the Deputy Team Leader for Libya at the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, an independent mediation organization based in Geneva. This article represents his personal views.

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