In Libya elections, lessons for Arab Spring

The Libya elections were a step forward for a bedraggled Arab Spring. They revive the region's cry for democracy and may set a model in how to accommodate Islam with individual rights.

Manu Brabo/AP Photo
Polling station officials count election ballots in Tripoli, Libya, on Saturday. Jubilant Libyans chose a new parliament in their first nationwide vote in decades, marking a milestone since the death of longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi.

The best view of the Arab Spring is the long view. That’s because only a few seeds of freedom planted in last year’s uprisings have sprouted. Many shoots have wilted under the heat of resistance to democracy from dictators, militaries, and Islamists. 

The latest sprout to note – and to praise – is Libya’s election July 7. It defied the naysayers of the Arab Spring. Turnout was high – nearly two-thirds of Libyans voted in the country’s first free election in half a century. Preelection violence and ballot problems were minimal. 

Whatever the final results or the political missteps may come, the vote “reflected the democratic will of the people,” as one foreign election watcher said. It was largely free of fear and intimidation.

Those facts alone are a rock for Libya’s 6 million people to build on. They add to the regional progress already achieved in Tunisia and Egypt. And they can help keep up the spirits of pro-democracy advocates in Syria, Bahrain, and other parts of the Middle East.

The nine-month, post-Qaddafi transition in Libya has been chaotic enough for people to grasp a need for the kind of unity that can be felt in a nationwide vote for a new legislative assembly. “When someone is drowning, he holds on to any lifeline,” one Libyan told The Financial Times.

Democracy – where everyone has a say – is the only way to overcome Libya’s tribal divisions, spread its oil wealth, and convince some 200,000 members of local militias to put down their arms.

The new parliament will pick interim leaders and guide the writing of a constitution. Its politics could be well balanced because 120 of the 200 seats were granted to independent candidates who reflect local interests. The parties, which have only 80 seats, will need to use persuasion rather than force to win over the independent lawmakers.

Libya could become a model of how to ensure radical Islamists don’t derail democracy by squelching basic rights, especially those of women and non-Muslims. The country was fortunate to have had an interim prime minister, US-educated Mahmoud Jibril, who knows how to work with Islamic groups. His centrist political coalition, the National Forces Alliance, may have done well in the election.

“The problem is not with sharia or Islam,” Mr. Jibril told the BBC. “The problem is with the interpretation of sharia. When we turn Islam into some ritual, into a box, when we say ‘You do this, you are an atheist’ or ‘You do this, and you are a believer,’ this is not helpful to Islam.”

His inclusive, moderate, and pragmatic style will be useful to help bring about national reconciliation and to build up the institutions of law and governance that were largely missing under Muammar Qaddafi’s 42-year rule.

Libyans had enough trust in each other to vote together peacefully. Now they must trust their representatives will do the same in making sure the sprouts of democracy come to full bloom.

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