TRIPOLI (Reuters) - As soon as it was clear that independent candidate Abedrabbah Yussef Bubreg was set to win a seat in Libya’s first free national elections for a generation, his phone started ringing.
The two leading political groups - a liberal coalition led by wartime rebel prime minister Mahmoud Jibril and the political arm of Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood - each wanted to know how he would align himself in the 200-member assembly.
“They wanted to know what my vision was, what my thoughts were for Libya’s future and with whom I would cooperate,” said the 52-year-old philosophy professor, who won a seat for the eastern town of Baida.
“I said I would not join any side for now and I want to see what is best for Libya’s national interest.”
Jibril’s National Forces Alliance (NFA) trounced Islamist parties in the race for party seats in the July 7 poll, winning 39 positions out of the 80 reserved for political entities, compared to 17 for the Justice and Construction Party (JCP), the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
But those impressive numbers do not translate into an automatic majority for Jibril. The remaining 120 seats in the assembly were allotted to independent candidates like Bubreg, whose allegiances are hard to pin down.
Mostly elected on the basis of local connections and reputation rather than ideology, this potentially fractious mish-mash of lawyers, businessmen, activists and former opponents of Muammar Gaddafi is set to play a pivotal role.
In the battle to hold sway over the assembly, where the most important decisions will require a two-thirds majority, both Jibril’s NFA and the Brotherhood’s JCP are scrambling to form alliances with independents and smaller parties.
But so far, no clear picture has emerged of which single group, if any, will dominate the parliament that will name a prime minister, enact legislation and prepare for new elections after a constitution is drafted next year.
Some independents are expected to declare their allegiances when the assembly meets for the first time next month, but others may not show their hand until important sessions come up, such as the vote for prime minister.
Representing Libya’s mosaic of local, regional and tribal factions, these unpredictable independents are a potential wild card in Libyan politics, and their myriad competing opinions and interests could complicate decision-making.
“The political game is only just starting ... No one quite knows who is who and what they are likely to support,” Maryann Maguire, director of Tripoli-based business consultancy InterCultures, said. “Everyone is in learning mode.”
In a country where political parties were long banned, such post-election horse-trading is a learning process.
Jibril, who himself did not run in the election, should be able to count on a significant number of independents as well as the former rebel oil minister, Ali Tarhouni, whose National Centrist Current won two seats in the poll.
The 60-year-old U.S.-trained Jibril has called for a grand coalition government to rebuild the country after last year’s war put an end to Gaddafi’s 42-year dictatorship.
“Reaching a majority will be easy, reaching a complete consensus ... will be more challenging,” Tarhouni said. “This is a stage of rebuilding a country and that requires consensus.”
But the Brotherhood’s party also believes it can boost the influence of its 17 seats through independents. Its head, Mohammed Sawan, has said 19 independents are aligning themselves with the JCP.
Al-Watan, led by former Islamist militia leader Abdelhakim Belhadj, failed to win a single party seat.
“There is no majority for any side and that means that no side alone can be in power,” Emhemed Ghwaila, secretary general of Watan, said. “We have five seats from independents and we have connections with other independents.”
The question remains whether the JCP will heed Jibril’s call for a coalition government or define itself as the main opposition bloc with a view to making gains at the next polls.
Speculation is growing that some independents, distrustful of both sides, are seeking to form their own coalition.
“Many independents have been approached by parties but there is a plan by some independents to build a bloc,” said Abdelgader Ehweli, an independent from the southern town of Sabha.
“I hope we become the safety valve ... the third power to support or balance rather than divide the national congress before it even begins its work,” said another independent parliamentarian, Saleh Bashir Ejouda, of Benghazi.
If three major blocs are formed, that is likely to make decision-making more difficult, Maguire said.
“The main issues will relate to the constitution, participation of former regime officials in public affairs and how to protect the ideals of the revolution. It is through these decisions the longer-term political battle lines will emerge.”
Lawyer Abdulhafiz Eddayekh, an independent from Baida, said: “When there is a decision to be made, for me it’s very clear - whoever has a very good program for Libya, I am with him.”
Additional reporting by Mohammed Al-Tommy in Benghazi; Editing by Lin Noueihed and Andrew Roche