In Libya, diverse coalition has edge over Islamists in elections

TRIPOLI, Libya — The main street in Misurata remains shot to pieces. In Tripoli’s Janzour suburb, displacement camps dot the landscape.

Yet Libya, site of the Arab world’s most violent revolution last year, staged largely peaceful national elections over the weekend, with victory appearing likely for a coalition appealing to a wide range of ideological views that is led by one of the main figures in the war that ousted longtime strongman Moammar Kadafi.

Preliminary vote counts suggest a landslide triumph for the National Forces Alliance, or NFA, led by former Transitional National Council Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, a Western-educated political scientist.

The alliance, a coalition of about 60 political parties and 200 civil society groups, is seen as somewhat more progressive than its main Islamist rivals. In that regard, the Libyan vote played out differently than the one in Tunisia, where a moderate Islamist party captured a plurality in parliament, and Egypt, where voters chose the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate in a polarizing runoff against a candidate strongly identified with that nation’s deposed secular leadership.

“There are some key differences between Libya and its neighbors,” said Shadi Hamid, research director at the Brookings Doha Center. “Egypt and Tunisia feature high levels of polarization along Islamist-liberal lines. Libya lacked such a dynamic. This helped neutralize the Islam issue, so the [Muslim Brotherhood’s] Justice and Construction Party could not distinguish itself from the competition as easily.”

About 1.8 million of 2.8 million registered voters, a turnout of nearly 65%, cast ballots in Libya for a temporary national assembly, a vote that United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described as “well-conducted and transparent.”

In Janzour, the NFA won about 26,000 votes, compared with the 2,000 garnered by the Justice and Construction Party, or JCP, according to early results. Similar figures emerged in Zlitan, east of the capital, Tripoli.

The NFA is likely to serve “as a bridge between the old and new Libya,” said Frederic Wehrey, a senior associate at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Besides casting a wide ideological net, the NFA may have been helped by tribal factors.

Jibril is a member of the Warfallah, the country’s largest tribe, Wehrey said. “As a result, the NFA was able to capture important swaths of the country that were thought to be holdouts from the last regime, namely Bani Walid.”

Others said the apparent victory was also prompted by a sense of wariness fostered by examples from abroad.

“After Egypt and Tunisia, a lot of Libyans do not trust the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Najla Daghman, a civil society activist. “Many people voted for the NFA because they did not want the Justice and Construction Party to win. We don’t know who they are or who is funding them.”

It is by no means clear whether a big-tent government approach will work in the long run in a nation where resentments continue to boil over and a functional justice system remains no more than a dream. The war was fought by disparate militias with competing views and tribal backgrounds, who all came together against a common enemy, Kadafi.

In Misurata, site of fierce fighting last year between Kadafi loyalists and government opponents, buildings remain charred. Graffiti covers the walls, pointing to the hatred between Misurata and the neighboring town of Tawergha, which was firebombed and looted by Misuratan militias exacting a terrible revenge; Tawergha was used by Kadafi to launch the brutal siege on Misurata last year.

Jibril, who once worked for Kadafi, “and the NFA remain despised in Misurata, which has enormous clout in terms of its militia and is already behaving like an independent city-state,” said Wehrey.

Although Jibril was barred from running for the national assembly, he is expected to be chosen as Libya’s new prime minister.

In Janzour, Tawerghans now reside in displacement camps and are often the victims of abductions or torture.

Among the problems facing a new government is finding a means to hold fair trials for thousands of detainees. In Libya’s packed prisons, men lie on small foam mattresses, reading from the Koran and smoking cigarettes; many are sub-Saharan Africans accused of being Kadafi mercenaries.

In the dusty city of Sabha in the remote south, Libya’s combustible tribal fissures also remain on display. The Tibu, many of whom were barred from voting, suffer severe discrimination and have clashed with rival Arab tribes, leaving their run-down communities — which Kadafi walled off, isolating them from others — scarred from brutal street combat.

Fostering an environment of trust is probably the biggest challenge facing authorities. The country’s east, where calls for federalism echo, seeks reassurance that it will not be marginalized in the national assembly, and will be provided with adequate services.

More generally, there are lurking fears that a return to a Kadafi-style system of autocratic governance may be on the horizon, with potentially severe repercussions.

“Some Twitterati from Misurata I’ve been following had stated that Jibril’s reign will be ‘Kadafi Part 2,’ ” said Wehrey.

Johnson is a special correspondent.