In Libyan Election, Tribalism Trumps Islamism

The Muslim Brotherhood failed to make inroads into Libyan politics but the vote was hardly a victory for liberals.

The moderate National Forces Alliance of wartime interim Libyan prime minister Mahmoud Jibril scored a landslide victory over their Islamist rival parties this week in the North African country’s first free elections since the fall of former strongman Muammar Gaddafi.

Final election results aren’t due until next week but with the majority of the votes counted, Jibril’s alliance had unbeatable leads in the capital Tripoli, the eastern city of Benghazi, the cradle of last year’s revolt, as well as the desert south.

Unlike was the case in Egypt and Tunisia, which similarly had dictatorships deposed in last year’s “Arab Spring” uprisings, the Muslim Brotherhood failed to make significant inroads into Libyan politics.

Jibril, who is expected to return to the prime ministership, is an economist and political scientists by training who headed the nation’s economic planning board for nearly four years under Gaddafi’s regime before he resigned in protest to its attempt to crush a popular uprising with brutal force. In his previous position, he promoted the liberalization of the Libyan economy and privatization of its many state-owned enterprises. He refuses to describe himself as either a liberal or Islamist but sees himself as a pragmatist.

Although Jibril and most of the parties aligned with him aren’t overtly Islamist, the election isn’t necessarily a victory for secularism either. Writes Adam Garfinkle for The American Interest, “Islamism did not win, true; tribalism won instead and that does not bode well for the continued unity of the country.” Jibril is from the Warfalla tribe, Libya’s largest which was also the most powerful during Gaddafi’s reign.

The Warfalla hail from the west of Libya, known as Tripolitania before Gaddafi rose to power, whereas in the eastern Cyrenaica region, which quickly managed to unshackle itself of the Gaddafi regime in last year’s uprising, there is mounting apprehension about what is seen there as a powergrab on Tripolitania’s part.

Tribal leaders and militia commanders gathered in Benghazi in March declared autonomy for Cyrenaica, a move that was condemned by the National Transitional Council which feared the breakup of the country.

Cyrenaica, known as Barqa in Arabic, was suppressed during the forty years of Gaddafi’s dictatorship. The Libyan strongman used oil revenue from the east to finance development and largess in the west.

Less than a third of Libyans lives in the eastern province. The population is split between an Arab majority in the north which is largely urban and spread across different tribes and a black nomadic minority that dwells in the desert south. Both groups are Muslim.

If Jibril is to maintain unity, he will likely have to appease the Cyrenaicans with a measure of autonomy at the expense of the strength of the central government.