There are 2.7 million registered voters in Libya, 28% of the total population, and they are facing the most extraordinary and frightening event of their lives – totally free elections. Libya has quite naturally splintered and devolved since the overthrow of Moammar Qaddafi. It was unavoidable, just as it was unavoidable in Yugoslavia. When all that holds together an artificial country is a single man or an outside force, the removal of that “unifier” will break the country apart.
The divisions in Libya consist of the modern cities on the coast, the traditional tribes in the desert, and the warring sects of Islam. The situation within Islam has gone beyond the Sunni vs. Shia vs. Kurds battles of Iraq into layers of sectarian conflict that threaten the stability of each and every nation in the region. The Arab Spring of young, educated, globally-minded Libyans and Egyptians has been hijacked by Islamists and their nastier cousins, the fundamentalists, much the same way the rebellion that drove the Russians out of Afghanistan was hijacked by the Taliban.
The upcoming election is supposed to create a 200-member transitional assembly that will chose a new prime minister and cabinet to run the daily operations of the country while the assembly works to create a new constitution. Many of the 3,700 candidates running for those 200 seats have ties to Islamic parties. After the new constitution is drafted, it will be voted upon by the electorate, and hopefully, a new government can be elected.
During the negotiations over the constitution, the principal conflicts will be over how the population will be represented and what rights will be guaranteed under the constitution. Those who favor the implementation of an Islam regime based in Sharia law will be in conflict with the city dwellers who have enjoyed higher levels of modernity under Qaddafi, with greater rights for women and tolerance of minorities. There have been violent clashes between the tribes in the desert regions, and even within the coastal region there are strong tribal loyalties. Qaddafi nurtured those differences to prevent Libyans joining together to overthrow him. There is also a threat of separation of the nation, with the eastern part, around Benghazi, reluctant to being brought under Tripoli’s control again.
Libya had a strange government under Qaddafi. He hid the totality of his power by creating local “authorities” based on communist committees. He “decentralized” the actual government, placing ministries in various cities instead of in Tripoli. But it was all a show, and none of the government held any real power that did not emanate from Qaddafi. In Libya, unlike Egypt, the old military has had little to do with the transition. That has been directed, more or less, by the same people who established a breakaway government in Benghazi during the revolution.
Though there have been incidents of Salafists attacking Sufi sites as they are elsewhere in Muslim countries, Libya has been spared the Sunni-Shia battles of Iraq. Part of that is the fact that Qaddafi worked the tribal divisions instead of the sectarian ones as Saddam Hussein did.
The last time Libyans had a multi-party election was 1952. It is estimated that only 5% of the Libyan population is old enough to have been alive in 1952. Though Qaddafi held “elections” they were nothing more than repeated affirmations of his power. As in Egypt, there will be a mixed system for choosing members of the new assembly. A certain number of seats have been set aside to be filed proportionally by party. If the X party wins 30% of the vote, they will take 30% of those seats. The rest of the seats will be filled by direct election of individuals. There are a large number of female candidates, but their election posters are being defaced, showing how difficult it may be for women to retain their rights in the new Libya. The largest number of parties are affiliated with Islamic causes, and few are strictly secular. Libya has its own Muslim Brotherhood party, the Justice and Construction Party, and they are expected to do well in the election.
While the West is concerned about the continuing spread of Islamic governance in the Middle East, the people of Libya, especially in the coastal communities, are not expressing any interest in becoming North Africa’s version of Iran or Saudi Arabia.