Libya’s Election (Editor’s Reader)

    The Middle East Channel Editors Reader #6 Votes are being counted in yesterday’s historic election to select a temporary 200 member General National Congress in Libya. The voting process itself was a resounding success, which defied the many skeptics who predicted violence, boycotts, or worse.  Reports from across Libya highlighted an enormous, infectious ...

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626564_51w49md3spl._bo2204203200_pisitb-sticker-arrow-clicktopright35-76_aa300_sh20_ou01_.jpg

    The Middle East Channel Editors Reader #6

Votes are being counted in yesterday's historic election to select a temporary 200 member General National Congress in Libya. The voting process itself was a resounding success, which defied the many skeptics who predicted violence, boycotts, or worse.  Reports from across Libya highlighted an enormous, infectious enthusiasm for the vote which belied the sensationalist press reporting and commentary about a collapsing, violent Libya on the brink of chaos.  Voter registration and turnout were remarkably high, and there have been few reports of either violence or attempted fraud. With luck, Libya's electoral commission will avoid the self-inflicted wounds of, say, Egypt and quickly announce credible results which will be accepted as such by all of the major contestants. 

Few observers have any illusions that the elections themselves will solve any of Libya's many problems, from economic woes to the absence of effective state institutions to the continuing role of armed militias.  The absence of any prior history of such elections makes it almost impossible to predict the likely winners. And the experience of countless transitional elections elsewhere warns against exaggerated hopes for a smooth political ride to come. There will be fierce struggles for power and positions as a government is formed, existential decisions to be made by the election's losers about whether and how to contest their defeat, and looming battles about core questions of the country's identity and direction.  But the high participation in and smooth progress of the elections will help to ground those coming political battles within a legitimate, democratic and hopefully resilient institutional framework. 

    The Middle East Channel Editors Reader #6

Votes are being counted in yesterday’s historic election to select a temporary 200 member General National Congress in Libya. The voting process itself was a resounding success, which defied the many skeptics who predicted violence, boycotts, or worse.  Reports from across Libya highlighted an enormous, infectious enthusiasm for the vote which belied the sensationalist press reporting and commentary about a collapsing, violent Libya on the brink of chaos.  Voter registration and turnout were remarkably high, and there have been few reports of either violence or attempted fraud. With luck, Libya’s electoral commission will avoid the self-inflicted wounds of, say, Egypt and quickly announce credible results which will be accepted as such by all of the major contestants. 

Few observers have any illusions that the elections themselves will solve any of Libya’s many problems, from economic woes to the absence of effective state institutions to the continuing role of armed militias.  The absence of any prior history of such elections makes it almost impossible to predict the likely winners. And the experience of countless transitional elections elsewhere warns against exaggerated hopes for a smooth political ride to come. There will be fierce struggles for power and positions as a government is formed, existential decisions to be made by the election’s losers about whether and how to contest their defeat, and looming battles about core questions of the country’s identity and direction.  But the high participation in and smooth progress of the elections will help to ground those coming political battles within a legitimate, democratic and hopefully resilient institutional framework. 

In short, July 7 was only one day in Libya.  But it was a good day.

Here are some of my recommendations for things to read to help make sense of the election in Libya and the struggles to come.

Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution, by Lindsey Hilsum.   This is the best of the small new crop of reported books about the revolution, war, and their aftermath in Libya.   Hilsum gives a well-grounded, accessible account of the Libyan struggle from the ground level, with enough historical background to contextualize the events.  She largely avoids editorializing, and has no evident ideological axe to grind over an intervention which sparked more than its share of eye-rolling polemics.  Academic histories of the war will come, but for now I thoroughly enjoyed this journalist’s account.

Previewing Libya’s Elections (Project on Middle East Democracy, July 2012).  A very useful backgrounder to the rules, the contenders, the stakes and the issues to watch.   POMED also offers useful links to other resources, including an IFES election backgrounder

Libya’s Islamists Unpacked, by Omar Ashour (Brookings Doha, May 2012).  Ashour is one of the best informed and well-connected researchers working on Islamist trends in Libya.  This policy brief effectively describes and evaluates the major Islamist groups in the emerging landscape.  For earlier insights from Ashour on the Middle East Channel, see "Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood Faces the Future" (March 2012) and "Ex-Jihadists in the New Libya" (August 2011). Also see Mary Fitzgerald, "A Current of Faith," in Foreign Policy for more on these Islamist movements. 

The Libyan Rorschach, by Sean Kane (Middle East Channel, May 2012).  Panoramic account of the evolving Libya by an American analyst which delves into the competing narratives and trends across a divided but emerging nation.  Also see Kane’s "Federalism and Fragmentation in Libya? Not so Fast" (March 2012), "Throw out the playbook for Libya’s elections" (January 2012), and "Libya’s Constitutional balancing act" (December 2011).  For more from Foreign Policy on this confused national tapestry, see Alison Pargeter’s new "Qaddafi Lives".

Militia Politics in Libya’s National Elections, by Jacob Mundy (Middle East Channel, July 2012).  The continuing role of armed groups — militias to their critics, freedom fighters to their defenders — is by most accounts the single greatest challenge to the consolidation of a legitimate Libyan political order.  Mundy’s reported analysis points out some of the real, and less real, dimensions of that important challenge.  For more on the challenge to Libya’s elections from militias — which does not end on election day —  see this Crisis Group brief.

Finally, on the ongoing showdown between Libya and the International Criminal Court, follow Mark Kersten at Justice in Conflict — his summary of the outcome of the clash over the four arrested ICC workers here, and scroll down for much more thoughtful commentary. 

*******

Recent editions of the Middle East Channel Editor’s Reader

#5:  Sudan’s Protests (June 28, 2012);  #4 Egyptian judges and salafis, Libyan money, and more  (June 11);  #3 Three Books and a Special Issue (June 5)

Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).

He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark

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