Transitions

Can the New Libyan President Live Up to Expectations?

Libya’s General National Congress (GNC or Interim legislature) has elected Nouri Abusahmain as its new president and de facto head of state. Abusahmain won the presidency with 96 votes against 80 for his opponent al-Sharif al-Wafi with eight abstentions. The election comes after former President Mohamed al-Magariaf resigned in anticipation of the political isolation law. ...

MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images
MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images

Libya’s General National Congress (GNC or Interim legislature) has elected Nouri Abusahmain as its new president and de facto head of state. Abusahmain won the presidency with 96 votes against 80 for his opponent al-Sharif al-Wafi with eight abstentions.

The election comes after former President Mohamed al-Magariaf resigned in anticipation of the political isolation law. The law, which goes into effect next month, bars senior Qaddafi-era officials from office.

Abusahmain was elected to the GNC in July 2012 to represent the town of Zuwara in western Libya. However, what does the election of Abusahmain mean in the Libyan political context?

The election sends very positive signal to the Amazigh (commonly known in the West as "Berbers") of Libya, for Abusahmain is one of them. The Amazigh are the indigenous ethnic group of North Africa. They were oppressed under the rule of Muammar al-Qaddafi, who on many occasions denied their existence in Libya. Now the Amazigh have seen one of their own elected to Libya’s highest public office. This will give further assurances to the Amazigh population that their rights will be protected as the country prepares for the election of the Constituent Assembly, which will be in charge of drafting the constitution. The Amazigh have been demanding that their language, heritage, and rights as a minority be protected by the upcoming constitution.

But there are other aspects of Abusahmain’s election that aren’t quite so positive. Abusahmain was nominated by the Martyrs bloc, which is dominated by Islamists and hard-line revolutionary members who have been pushing for hard for GNC to pass the controversial isolation law. The Justice and Construction Party (the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm in Libya) have also supported Abusahmain. Al-Wafi was supported by the National Forces Alliance bloc, which is led by Mahmoud Jibril.

Despite winning the majority of the public vote in last year’s elections, the National Forces Alliance has been outmaneuvered by the Islamists on a number of occasions, and the election of Abusahmain over al-Wafi seems to be one of them. The Islamist blocs managed to consolidate their grip on the GNC by working together more effectively and supporting compromise candidates like Abusahmain (who in reality is an independent candidate and by many accounts is not an Islamist). When the isolation law comes into force, it is expected that the Islamists will have an even stronger grip on the GNC because their groups are least affected by the new law. This is because one of the articles that targeted the Islamists as a group that reconciled with Qaddafi was dropped from the final draft, which was passed under a gunpoint in Tripoli on May 5, 2013. The militias and their leaders, especially the ones linked to the Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood, will welcome Abusahmain’s election.

The election of Abusahmain will also have an effect on the regional balance of power. Magariaf was from eastern Libya, Prime Minister Ali Zeidan is from the south, and the majority of the GNC is from western Libya. Some in eastern Libya will feel left out because al-Wafi was from the town of Elmarj in eastern Libya. The east Libyan federalists could exploit the situation, as they have been fighting western Libya’s domination over the country’s politics and wealth.

During his statement to the GNC prior to his election, Abusahmain promised to protect and safeguard the values and goals of the February 17 revolution. However, they seem to have been lost in the intensifying political infighting and the definition of them differs from one group to another.

The new president will face growing public anger and frustration at the performance of the GNC. He will need to contain the political infighting within the GNC and initiate a wide, transparent, and inclusive national dialogue that will bring Libyans together in order for him to make any positive change on the ground. In addition, people seem to be frustrated with the political process in Libya. The National Forces Alliance party (which is moderate and liberal-leaning), which got the highest percentage of public vote (around 48 percent) in the elections last year, seems to have been outmaneuvered by the Islamists, who failed to secure any real public support during the elections. Libyans will need to make their voices heard again in the upcoming elections of the Constituent Assembly. The elections are set to take place later this year.  

Many of the Amazigh of Libya will hugely welcome the election of the new president. However, many in the oil-rich region of eastern Libya will feel left out, and the feelings of marginalization are likely to be reinforced after this past election. In addition, the many Libyans who voted for the National Forces Alliance will also feel betrayed by the political process in Libya, which has so far sidelined the party with the biggest public mandate in Libya.

The election of the new GNC president will most likely meet a mixed reaction, reflecting the ever-growing political polarization of the Libyan society. The ongoing struggle for power in Libya will continue to undermine the trust Libyans put in the ballot box in last year’s elections. The only way any leader or political group in Libya can lead is through public engagement and the initiation of a transparent national dialogue that is inclusive of all Libyans.    

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.

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