TRIPOLI (Reuters) - Early results from Libya’s first election since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi show Islamist parties failing to secure the same grip on power as counterparts in neighboring countries where the Arab Spring also toppled veteran rulers.
But while partial tallies from Saturday’s national assembly poll point to a lead for Mahmoud Jibril, a moderate who was the wartime rebel prime minister, that does not mean the new Libya will jettison its socially conservative brand of Islam.
Victories by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt’s parliamentary elections and for the Islamists of Ennahda in Tunisia had set the stage for the July 7 elections in Libya, which some had styled as a clash between “liberals” and “Islamists”.
But the Libyan narrative was always going to be different from its two immediate neighbors to its east and west.
Traumatized by four decades of dictatorship under Gaddafi and unused to free political debate, many voters appear simply to have chosen in Jibril, a U.S.-trained strategic planning expert, a figure who was the public face of the rebel leadership and is seen as a safe pair of hands who can rebuild the economy.
Moreover, in a society which is already familiar with a ban on alcohol and conservative dress codes for women but which shows little appetite for hardline policies, many Libyans asked themselves what more Islamist parties could actually offer.
“In Libya, everyone is Muslim - we don’t need a political Islam like Tunisia or Egypt,” said Younis Fanoush, a moderate independent candidate who stood in the eastern city of Benghazi, cradle of last year’s revolution.
Jibril also declares himself a devout, practicing Muslim.
That widely shared attitude looks to have limited the appeal of the Justice and Construction Party, the political arm of the local Muslim Brotherhood long suppressed by Gaddafi and whose members in some cases were hanged by police from lamp posts.
In the Tripoli suburb of Janzour, partial tallies from the first district in the capital from which results have begun to emerge showed Justice and Construction being crushed in a landslide for Jibril’s New Forces Alliance (NFA), a grouping of around 60 parties.
It fared better in Misrata, the city which bore the brunt of shelling by Gaddafi forces last year, but was still edged out of first place by the party of a local Gaddafi opponent.
Likewise, the new al-Watan (“Homeland”) party of former Islamist militant Abdul Hakim Belhadj ran a slick campaign with glossy posters but failed to take off, according to the same tallies being published gradually by the election commission.
Local political analyst Nasser Ahdash said many Libyans had believed that voting for avowedly Islamist parties would have alienated international allies and only prolonged the isolation from the rest of the world they suffered under Gaddafi.
“Libyans are sick and tired of being closed off from the world. They spent 42 years under the iron clamp of Gaddafi and being cut out from the rest of the planet,” said Ahdash.
“The experience of Egypt with the Brotherhood probably scared some Libyans into voting for Jibril’s camp,” he said of the power struggle now being played out in Cairo between the Islamists and army generals determined to retain influence.
Other factors appeared to play against the Islamists.
Some Libyans find hard to swallow the fact that the Brotherhood brokered deals with the Gaddafi government a decade ago to release hundreds of their members from jail.
Local perceptions that Justice and Construction have ties with the Egypt Brotherhood and that al-Watan is close to Qatar - even if not supported by clear evidence - also played against them, as did the relative obscurity of many Islamist candidates in a country where personal reputation is all.
The tribal and local tensions still prevalent in Libya may explain Jibril’s more modest showing in Misrata, where no love is lost with Bani Walid, the home town of his Warfalla tribe.
But he clearly benefited from the profile he won as one of the most prominent leaders of last year’s rebellion. He was point man for the diplomacy that won it the NATO backing needed to hammer home advances against Gaddafi forces.
“I want Libya to be an Islamic country, and would have voted for an Islamist party if I was convinced a decent one existed,” said Osama Mohamed, a teacher from Benghazi.
“But at this point the country needs someone who can fix our economy and move us forward, and Jibril is the man to do that.”
Jibril himself did not stand as a candidate for Saturday’s elections, a decision many believe is calculated to allow him to claim a greater role - possibly even president - once a new constitution is drafted. For now, he is coy about his plans.
But assuming the NFA’s lead is confirmed by final results, Jibril will have to deal with a local political scene where the frame of reference is Islamic and “secular” a dirty word.
Human Rights Watch analyst Hanan Salah pointed to defaced campaign posters of female candidates as a sign some in Libya do not want women in politics, and said any new Libyan leadership ought to demonstrate a commitment to freedom of expression and to reform of the justice sector.
Many Libyans reject the kind of Islamic law found in states like Saudi Arabia - many women complained when, in a speech declaring “liberation” last October, opposition leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil promised religious rule and vowed to scrap a Gaddafi-era law which curbs clerically approved polygamy.
Yet rejecting Islamic law is also clearly no vote-winner; Jibril, In his first news conference on Sunday after the election, rejected foreign media labels of him as liberal and secular and he listed sharia as a guiding principle of his alliance’s broadly-defined “Libya First” platform.
In a country riven by tribal and regional tensions, that could act as a rallying point to bring Islamist parties into the grand coalition he wants to emerge from what will be a highly fragmented interim national assembly.
Of the 200 seats in the new General National Congress that will name a caretaker prime minister and cabinet before full parliamentary polls next year, only 80 are reserved to parties with the remaining 120 going to a mixed bag of independents.
Abu Bakr Abdel-Gader, an independent candidate who has already learned that he has won a seat, told Reuters he had been contacted by Justice and Construction to be offered a position in that party - a sign it could be looking to bolster its numbers via alliances with independent lawmakers.
“The incoming National Congress could be beset by the same debilitating in-fighting that hampered the outgoing National Transitional Council,” analyst Geoff Porter said of the interim administration from which Jibril stepped down last October.
“The total tally of individual candidates could ultimately tip the results in a new direction and things could change markedly over the next week or two.”
Writing and additional reporting by Mark John; Editing by Alastair Macdonald