Libya’s population will head to the polls for the country’s first nationwide parliamentary elections on July 7—a landmark event in a country where public involvement in political life was strictly forbidden during the forty-two years of Qaddafi’s reign. Despite multiple warnings from outside commentators, the specters of a break-up of the state and intra-militia violence are unlikely to derail the voting. For the most part, both issues remain confined to the fringes—the push for regional autonomy has only been advanced by a small, though vocal, minority of easterners, and tribal and ethnic violence has only flared on the periphery, in the western mountains and in the southern border expanses.

In many respects, recent unrest has been a symptom of two important and interrelated deficiencies of post-Qaddafi Libya: the anemic nature of the national army and the caretaker status of the National Transitional Council (NTC), the country’s interim legislative authority. Libyan bloggers and Twitterati have noted as much. One blogger argued that “because of the mistrust we have in the government, no one is disarming and the government is not stabilizing the country because everyone is armed.” According to another, both the NTC and the militias know their respective reigns are coming to an end, so “everyone is trying to settle scores before July [the elections].”

Frederic Wehrey
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where his research focuses on governance, conflict, and security in Libya, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf.
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Bolstering the army and disarming the militias are certainly long-term challenges. Already, it appears that a number of ad hoc semi-official militia coalitions are forming in parallel to the national army, and they demand attention. But first and foremost, a successful election will be an important step in improving Libyans’ confidence in their government.

Registration and Campaigning Have Progressed Smoothly So Far

Campaigning is already under way for what is an ambitious foray into the world of nationwide elections. Out of 3,707 vetted candidates, Libyans will elect a 200-member General National Congress (GNC) that will replace the NTC. In its first session, the GNC will elect its president and will have to appoint a prime minister within 30 days. It will then have to form a body to draft a constitution, present the draft in 120 days, and hold a referendum on the constitution.

The run-up to the voting has been marked by the rapid and explosive formation of political parties. In the final tally of Libya’s High National Election Commission (HNEC), there are 142 registered political parties. Of the eligible candidates, 1,206 are running as part of an established political party while 2,501 are independents. According to the HNEC, the parties cannot be tied to militias, their funding must be transparent, and they cannot contradict Islamic law. In April 2012, the NTC passed a law banning political parties formed on the basis of religious, ethnic, or tribal affiliations—a move that prompted a widespread outcry from Libya’s burgeoning Islamist scene. The ban was subsequently lifted on May 3.

The election commission has designated an eighteen-day window for political campaigning, running from June 18 through July 5, and on voting day, the country will have over 1,500 registration centers and will be divided into thirteen voting districts. According to the election commission, more than 80 percent of eligible Libyans have registered—a significant portion that suggests there will be a high voter turnout. Libyans abroad can vote in the UK, Germany, the UAE, the United States, and Canada, while those residing in Africa will have to travel to Libya.

The rules governing the election appear increasingly complex and sometimes confusing. Many parties are running in more than one district but are allowed only one candidate per district, which is clear enough. But in some districts, Libyans will vote for a party list; in others, a single candidate from a given party, for instance.

Regional Autonomy: The Dog That Didn’t Bark 

Among the election issues that have attracted outside attention, none has been more worrisome or contentious than federalism. Observers caution that deep-seated tensions could drive the country apart, with individual regions gaining greater autonomy. Many commentators have gone so far as to warn of an impending “Balkanization” of the country, citing historical, tribal, and even linguistic distinctions between the long-neglected eastern province of Cyrenaica and the northwestern province of Tripolitania, which enjoyed ascendancy under Qaddafi, along with the growing power of the revolutionary militias.

Much of the concern stems from the strident pronouncements of the Cyrenaica Transitional Council, a Benghazi-based entity that announced its existence on March 6 with calls for eastern autonomy and, later, a general election boycott. Unsurprisingly, the council’s supporters hail from notable families in the east who enjoyed prominence under the Senussi monarchy, before Qaddafi shifted power and resources to the west. Its leader is Ahmed Zubayr Senussi, a member of the NTC and the great nephew of King Idris Senussi, who ruled Libya when it became an independent state.

Yet, these calls for autonomy are by no means mainstream or widespread. In March, when the Cyrenaica council was mounting pro-autonomy demonstrations, there were simultaneous counterdemonstrations in both the east and Tripoli, with placards reading “No to Fitna [Chaos], No to Secession, Yes to National Unity.” The majority of Libyan parties are operating within the framework of a unified, centrally governed state.

Of course, some of the demonstrators also waved signs reading “No to Centralization, No to Federalism.” And undoubtedly, there will be fierce debates during the writing of the constitution about the reach of the central government into Libya’s provinces and whether or not local governments will control budgets and municipal services. Already, Misrata and Benghazi have exerted a measure of self-determination by holding local council elections. But so far, these developments have occurred within the context of a nationally elected GNC.

Added to this, the Cyrenaica Transitional Council appears to enjoy limited support. Its legitimacy is tainted by the perception that it is funded by Qaddafi loyalists residing abroad as well as its exclusive, upper-class membership.

Localized Violence Unlikely to Mar Elections

The possibility of domestic unrest disrupting elections also looms large for some. In recent weeks, Libya has witnessed tribal confrontations in the west, ethnic clashes on the southern periphery, and Islamist agitation in the east. In many respects, the fighting represents a series of micro-conflicts—the last convulsions of the revolution, a settling of scores, and, in many cases, a purging of the remnants of the ancien régime. Most of the fighting has been between towns, tribes, or prominent personalities who enjoyed favoritism under Qaddafi or defected early in the revolution on the one side and revolutionaries who have few ties to the old order on the other. It has little to do with tensions surrounding the upcoming vote.

In one instance, the al-Awfiya brigade briefly seized the Tripoli International Airport on June 4 to protest the alleged kidnapping of their leader, Bu Jalil Hibshi, a former army commander who defected early in the revolution. Hibshi derived support from Tarhuna, a historically pro-Qaddafi town that held out against the rebels until late in the war, incurring lingering distrust from the rebel militias of Zintan and Misrata, who spearheaded the drive that toppled Qaddafi. The saga was finally resolved when a militia coalition from Zintan and Misrata descended on the airport and forced the al-Awfiya brigade to retreat.

It is unclear who was responsible for Hibshi’s disappearance; some have pointed to the Misratans, others the Supreme Security Committee, a newly created and ostensibly temporary Ministry of Interior force charged with internal security. Regardless of the culprit, the episode illustrates the residual struggle between mainstream revolutionary forces led by Zintan and Misrata and Qaddafi loyalists in “eleventh-hour holdouts” like Tarhuna.

This type of ongoing conflict is also apparent in the western Nafusa mountains, where revolutionary militias from Zintan have clashed with the Mashashiya tribe since December 2011, with at least sixteen killed and scores wounded. Conflict between the two tribes is rooted in long-running land disputes that were cynically exploited by Qaddafi. The Mashashiya are shepherds from the south (their name in Arabic means “walkers”) who were given Zintani land and housing by Qaddafi in a divide-and-rule strategy, starting in the 1970s. Unsurprisingly, the Mashashiya remained loyal to Qaddafi during the revolution, acting as fifth columns on the western front.

In the east, there have been a series of high-profile attacks and confrontations associated with a growing Salafi trend. Late May and early June were marked by a string of Islamist bombings against Western targets such as the International Committee for the Red Cross and the British and American consulates. Armed men from Ansar al-Sharia, a Libyan Salafi group with branches in Benghazi, Darnah, Ajdabiya, arrived in technical vehicles to Benghazi’s Liberation Square, demanding the imposition of Islamic law. They were quickly dispersed, however, by a counterdemonstration of civil society activists bearing flags emblazoned with “Libya Is Not Afghanistan.” While the Ansar al-Sharia has denied responsibility for the bombings and any ties to al-Qaeda, their presence exposes an important Islamist-secular fault line in the east, as well as tensions between entrenched Sufi notables and younger Salafi activists.

In the south, there has been ongoing fighting between ethnic Tabu and the Abu Sayf tribe in the cities of Sabha and Kufra, as well as fighting inside Kufra itself between Tabu and Arab residents. The clashes prompted the dispatch from Tripoli of the Libyan National Shield—a militia coalition deputized by the NTC to enforce the body’s will. Similarly, in the oasis town of Ghadames on the Algerian border, fighting between Tuareg and Arab residents has been simmering since May 16; the NTC finally deployed forces on June 17 in a bid to stop the clashes.  Despite having formed their own national congresses, there is little possibility that the ethnic Tabu or Tuareg will be able to establish any semblance of effective autonomy or self-governance; their numbers are too small and their population is too intermixed with neighboring Arabs. The greatest threat is not internal at all—it is that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) might seek to exploit the witches’ brew of ethnic discontent, criminality, and weak state control to establish a presence.

As bad as they are, these peripheral conflicts will have little bearing on how the election pans out to the north. Although alarming, the violence has been localized and confined to provincial towns. Moreover, it has not directly targeted parliamentary candidates and has not been aimed at disrupting the voting. Pre-election security is reportedly robust in many key cities, with militia brigades forming their own security plans in cooperation with the Ministry of Interior.

Local Concerns Will Shape the Voting Outcome

Given the dearth of reliable polling, it is impossible to predict the final results of the July 7 voting. What remains clear based on campaigning thus far and the statements of key individuals, is that pragmatic, local agendas will likely carry the day. Ties to communities based on tribe, business patronage, or revolutionary networks will shape voting outcomes, not political agendas or ideologies.

In some cases, the parties have yet to articulate a coherent ideology or platform. Importantly, the Islamist current is increasingly fractured between Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood groups, while former leaders of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) have formed their own parties. Virtually all parties make reference to Islam as a basis for law and political life.

As pre-election campaigning picks up, the parties can be roughly divided into the following two clusters:

The Islamists

Justice and Construction Party (Hizb al-Adala wa al-Bina): Founded on March 3, 2012, the Justice and Construction Party is the Muslim Brotherhood’s party in Libya. Its president is Muhammad Sawan, a Misratan and a former political prisoner under Qaddafi. Over half of its candidates are said to be women. In Benghazi’s local elections the Muslim Brotherhood affiliate obtained roughly 48 percent of the vote. In a recent press conference, Sawan reiterated his rejection of violence and the need to accept the results of the election peacefully.

National Gathering for Freedom, Justice, and Development (al-Tajammu’ al-Watani min ajl al-Hurriya wal ‘Adala wal Tanmiya): The National Gathering for Freedom, Justice, and Development is an Islamist political party founded by Dr. Ali Sallabi, a leading Islamist cleric who has strong ties to Qatar and Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi. It calls for a moderate Islamic democracy, citing Turkey as a model. Sallabi has stated that his party is not Islamist but nationalist, with an agenda that respects the general principles of Islam, and he has criticized the interim NTC as “extreme secularists.”

The Homeland Party (Hizb al-Watan): The Homeland Party is an Islamist political party founded by the former emir of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and chief of the Tripoli Military Council, Abdel Hakim Belhaj. Belhaj is running as a candidate in Tripoli’s district thirteen.. According to interviews in local Libyan press, the Homeland Party believes in a civil state with Islamic principles and does not believe in imposing a specific interpretation of Islam in personal matters or using violence.

The Center Nation Party (Hizb al-Ummah al-Wasat): The Center Nation Party is another Islamist party described in local press as the “political wing of the LIFG.” Its candidates include prominent LIFG member Sami Mustafa al-Saadi.

The Nationalists, Secularists, and Umbrella Parties

The National Front Party (Hizb al-Jabha al-Wataniya): The National Front Party (NFP) is the successor to a longtime anti-Qaddafi opposition organization, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (NFSL), established in 1981 by Muhammad Yusuf al-Muqaryif. Al-Muqaryif is a professor and historian from Benghazi who held many political and administrative positions in the regime before defecting to the opposition in 1981. He currently serves as the NFP’s chairman. The secretary general of the NFP is Ibrahim Abdel Aziz Sahad, a former member of the Libyan air force and diplomat. The NFP claims to have a strong following in Tripoli, Benghazi, Misrata, and Darna, but their ties to the United States and Britain during their time in exile have tarnished their standing inside Libya.

National Forces Alliance (Tahaluf al-Quwah al-Wataniya): The National Forces Alliance is a coalition of over 40 political organizations and 230 civil society groups. Its secretary general is Mahmoud Jibril, the former chairman of the NTC’s Executive Office who resigned from that office on October 23, 2011. The coalition states that it does not have an ideology and encompasses both secular and Islamist groups. In a recent press interview, Jibril mentioned the party’s tenets as preserving Libya’s territorial integrity, working toward decentralization, fostering economic development, and safeguarding equal rights for all Libyans.

Union for the Homeland (Al-Ittihad min Ajl al-Watan): The Union for the Homeland is a political bloc formed in Benghazi and led by Abdel Rahman al-Suwayhili, a longtime dissident under Qaddafi. According to its website, the party’s platform emphasizes the separation of powers, creating an independent judiciary, removing corruption, and protecting the rights and livelihood of former revolutionaries.

The Summit Party (Hizb al-Qimmah): The Summit Party is a nationalist party led by Abdullah Naker, the head of the Tripoli Revolutionary Council, a militia that controls part of Tripoli. Naker has clashed repeatedly with Abdel Hakim Belhaj, accusing him of being an extremist and backed by Qatar.

A Remarkable Achievement

As the election unfolds, it may be tempting to forecast results based on Libya’s neighbors or make dim predictions based on the country’s current state. Certainly, the reform of the security sector, the demobilization of the militias, and the integration of Libya’s provinces, particularly in the south, remain daunting challenges. There are also pockets of radicalism in the east resulting from Qaddafi’s long neglect of the area. And the country will face tough questions about federalism and the role of Islamic law.

But there are also grounds for guarded optimism. Unlike Egypt, there is no entrenched military or judiciary to impede the democratic transition. Libya’s Islamist parties, unlike their counterparts elsewhere in the world, are relatively new to politics and, from their initial campaigning, appear inclined toward pragmatism and consensus building. The country’s tribal, ethnic, and regional divides are not as stark as those in Iraq, Syria, or Yemen. By any measure, then, the election process has been a remarkable achievement in a country devoid of participatory politics for nearly half a century.