Coalition in Libya could beat Islamists
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BENGHAZI, Libya -- A coalition led by a political scientist educated at the University of Pittsburgh appeared on Sunday to be beating Islamist parties in Libya's first election in the post-Gadhafi era, breaking an Islamist wave that swept across neighboring Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings.
The preliminary results, characterized by independent monitors and party representatives who witnessed the vote counting for a new national assembly, reflect in part the well-known name and tribal connections of the coalition's founder, Mahmoud Jibril. He is the former interim prime minister who helped lead the de facto rebel government in Benghazi, and he is also a member of Libya's most populous tribe, the Warfalla.
The apparent success of Mr. Jibril's party over the Muslim Brotherhood's bloc now makes Mr. Jibril perhaps the most important voice in the next stage of Libya's political transition, though he is barred for now from elected office.
In a campaign that took place over just two weeks, after a 40-year stretch in which the country's dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, crushed any dissent and dismantled political structures, the ideological lines for Libyan voters remained fuzzy, at best.
Many voters acknowledged plans to let tribal, family or community ties guide their vote. The Islamists also sought to portray Mr. Jibril's coalition as "liberal" or "secular" -- and some who stood with him acknowledged privately that for them those terms were perfectly apt. Part of the coalition's success may have been because of lasting suspicion of Islamist groups instilled during Gadhafi's rule.
Still, Mr. Jibril rejected the terms. He and his allies publicly echoed a frequent refrain of Libyan voters who were unsure what to make of re-emergent groups like the Muslim Brotherhood: "Do they think they are more Muslim than we are?"
A political scientist who earned his doctoral degree at Pitt in 1985 and then taught there, Mr. Jibril said in a recent interview on Libyan television that his neighbors in either the United States or Libya would describe him as someone who "goes to the mosque for Friday prayers, and we see that he prays."
"The Libyan people don't need either liberalism or secularism, or pretenses in the name of Islam because Islam, this great religion, cannot be used for political purposes. Islam is much bigger than that," he said.
"Jibril is praying five times a day and fasting, so what is the difference?" asked Suleiman Zoubi, a former judge and political independent in the eastern city of Benghazi who appeared set to win a seat in the congress. "If he was not a Muslim, we would not have elected him."
Mr. Jibril and his coalition stood out from other opponents of Islamists around the region because they never hurled accusations of extremism against those who called for the application of Islamic law. Like the Islamist parties and other major factions in Libya, Mr. Jibril's coalition also pledged to make Islamic law a main source of legislation, though not the only one.
Ali Tarhouni, the leader of a fledgling party in Mr. Jibril's coalition and another former minister in the transitional government, called the results evidence of a "moderate" character to which Libyan voters responded. But he also attributed their success to voters' familiarity. "People trust us," he said. "Coming out of a war, with a political vacuum and a security vacuum, people were looking for those they knew were tested in the tough times."
Mr. Tarhouni said the coalition now appeared close to a majority in the 200-seat congress, dominating the 80 seats decided by party competition in the big cities and winning more a strong plurality in the 120 others contested by individual candidates.
The official results will not be released for several days. But the votes were counted Saturday night in each polling center in the presence of party and candidate representatives, as well as independent observers. On Sunday, both Islamists and their opponents said that Mr. Jibril's coalition was clearly headed for at least a plurality of the planned 200-member national congress. It is expected to govern Libya for the next 18 months and possibly oversee the writing of a constitution.
Some leading Islamists had predicted as recently as a few days ago that their parties would win as much as 60 percent of the seats. But on Sunday, Hisham Kreskshi, a leader of the party founded by Libya's Muslim Brotherhood, said it now expected to win less than a quarter of the 200 seats.
He said the Brotherhood's party was not disappointed by its own results, but it was unhappy with the dominance of Mr. Jibril's coalition.
First Published July 9, 2012 12:00 am