Yesterday, results for the Libyan elections were announced, putting what many call “liberal” parties ahead in the new National Assembly. The National Forces Alliance (NFA) won 39 out of the 80 seats reserved for political parties, more than double the 17 seats secured by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party. Does this spell a victory for the “liberals” at the polls, bucking the Islamist trend in the Middle East? Perhaps not, according to MEI’s Dr. Fahed Al-Sumait.
“Firstly, calling these parties ‘liberal’ is contentious,” says Al-Sumait. “Just because its leaders are educated in the West doesn’t mean that they will implement politically liberal policies.” He explains that in Libya, the role of Islam and nationalism feature prominently in the rhetoric of both the Islamist as well as what he calls “nationalist” parties like the NFA. “We need to understand that the people we deem ‘secularist’ or ‘liberal’ do not consider themselves in those terms,” Al-Sumait adds. Political Islam, he believes, will feature prominently in Libyan politics despite limited gains by Islamist parties.
At the same time, Al-Sumait notes that it is too soon to tell whether the nationalist or the Islamist bloc will gain the majority in the Assembly. He remarks that 60 percent of the Assembly is reserved for independent candidates, leaving the quest for dominance wide open. “Who the independent candidates align with will have a greater bearing than the current lead the NFA has over the Muslim Brothers,” he explains.
The newly elected 200-seat National Assembly will replace the self-appointed National Transitional Council that has been ruling Libya since the fall of the Qaddafi regime. The Assembly was at first meant to draft the constitution for the Libyan state, but opposition from the eastern provinces over limited representation resulted in a recall of this mandate on the eve of the elections. Currently, this unicameral body will be tasked to form an interim government, discuss the creation of a separate constitutional assembly to draft the document, and pave the way for eventual parliamentary elections.
With armed militias still running amok across Libya and the oil-rich eastern provinces tussling for greater representation in the government, it seems likely that issues of national unity will continue to plague Libyan politics in the short to medium term. While the ultimate shape of Libyan politics is still unknown, one thing is certain: the “liberals” are far from dominant.
MEI’s Conversations Series features informal interviews with prominent individuals about current events and/or their experience and work relating to the Middle East, Asia, and the Institute.
Interview by MEI intern David Wong De-Wei.
Photo credit: UNDP