By Wolfram Lacher
The 17th February Revolution has fundamentally reshaped Libya’s political landscape.
Ideological Camps and Tactical Alliances
Western media presented the election result as a victory for the “liberals” – Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance (NFA) – over the Islamists. That interpretation is misleading for several reasons.
First, representatives of the interests of individual families, cities and tribes were the true winners.
Second, the term “liberal” in the European sense applies at best to a minority of those elected to congress with the NFA or as associated independents.
Third, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis together gained a greater share of the nominally independent members than the Alliance.
The principal reason why the NFA gained by far the greatest share of party list votes was Jibril’s personal popularity. Beyond that, the outcome can also be seen as a vote against the Islamist parties without this being a vote for liberal, let alone secular values. Neither the Alliance nor other parties campaigned on liberal policies.
When Mohamed Magariaf, president of the GNC, was quoted as saying that Libya should become a secu-lar state, Alliance deputies joined the Muslim Brotherhood in protesting. 8
The Alliance statutes recognise democracy and the sharia as the main source of law, and are no different from the programmes of dozens of other new parties. The profiles of Alliance leaders and GNC members are more revealing. After Jibril, Abdel Majid Mlegta is one of its most important figures and biggest sponsors.
Mlegta, a businessman with roots in the western city of Zintan, maintained good relations with the Gaddafi regime but founded a revolutionary brigade in his home town when the uprising began and later participated actively in the liberation of Tripoli. 9
The Alliance’s parliamentarians include both young, well educated and older figures. What they have in common is belonging to an economically privileged class and prominent families. Well-known representatives of the former exiled opposition are absent; instead the NFA builds on prominent local figures. Its leading candidate in Benghazi, Ahmad Bensoued, has no political background, but was one of the city’s most popular football stars.
The member for central Tripoli, Abdellatif al-Muhalhil, is a leading scholar of the Libyan Sufis. 10
The Alliance can best be understood as an unideological electoral coalition of those parts of the elites that remained in Libya during the Gaddafi era, and for this reason had to find some kind of accommodation with the regime.
Several NFA parliamentarians were local officials under the old regime. Two were stripped of office for that reason by the Integrity Commission, which investigates the role of Gaddafi-era officials, as were two of the five ministers the Alliance nominated to the Zeidan cabinet. 11
Both the Alliance and the Justice and Construction party of the Muslim Brotherhood wield greater influence in the GNC than their official numbers would suggest. Many of their prominent members stood as independents, reckoning that this improved their chances. Certain less well-known candidates were elected with financial support from one or other party, and are now expected to be loyal. Including their associated independents, the Alliance and the Muslim Brotherhood together probably account for about half the seats. But the balance of forces depicted above should be regarded as approximative.
In political practice the real size of parliamentary groups varies, with the Alliance in particular lacking internal discipline. This became clear in the process of appointing the cabinet. In September 2012 the Alliance leadership was divided over whether to participate in Abushagur’s government. Mlegta and Jibril were strongly opposed, while Alliance Secretary-General Faisal Krekshi had himself nominated as a minister. 12
Tellingly, Zeidan avoided relying solely on the two main groupings, and also sought support among independent representatives of particular regions and cities. Nonetheless, his government was elected with only 105 votes in the 200-member GNC; 58 abstained.
Internal cohesion is much stronger within the Justice and Construction Party, many of whose deputies, ministers and leading activists spent years in prison together under Gaddafi. Those who entered the National Congress as independents exhibit much stronger loyalty than the associated independents of the Alliance. In the person of Nizar Kawan, an independent was even elected head of the Justice and Construction parliamentary group.
The third clearly identifiable camp is the Salafis, who are estimated at twenty-seven members and are strongest in Tripoli and Zawiya. This is not, however, a homogeneous bloc. The ten members associated with the al-Asala (“authenticity”) movement are especially influential.
Al-Asala is closely allied with Grand Mufti Sadeq al-Ghariani. Its representatives were elected above all in greater Tripoli, where they took eight of the fourteen seats for independents. 13
A second network, linked to the milieu of the former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), comprises Salafi revolutionaries who participated actively in the battle against the regime. Of these, only Abdel Wahab Qaid from Murzuq is a former leading LIFG member. 14
Others did not belong to the LIFG, but can be considered close to its circles, such as Salah Badi from Misrata, two former commanders of revolutionary brigades from Zawiya, 15 and five independents associated with the al-Watan Party of Abdel Hakim Belhadj. 16
There are also several independents who position themselves between the Salafis and the Muslim Brotherhood, including Mohammed al Walid from Zliten, the chair of the religious affairs committee. Among those smaller parties and independents that are not clearly linked to either the Salafis or the Muslim Brotherhood, temporary and regional alliances predominate.
The National Front of Mohamed Magariaf won three party list seats, and several independents are also members of the party: representatives of prominent families who were active in the exiled opposition. 17 But the National Front does not operate as a parliamentary group; instead, it has entered into shifting alliances with independents. 18
Other blocs have emerged and disappeared again while the cabinet was being put together, a group of fifteen independents from the north-east was able to nominate the agriculture minister in return for its support. Mohammed Bitro from Zintan assembled the Working Together Group, whose members stand close to the Alliance.
After the cabinet had been appointed, a small group largely from Sirte, Jufra and Sidra formed around Saleh Misbah, a deputy from Sirte. 19
Since early 2013, these short-lived alliances have coalesced into two larger blocs – both of which, however, represent alliances on specific policy issues only, and are unlikely to outlast the realisation of their short-term goals. At the end of January 2013, the “Promise to the Martyrs” bloc formed to pursue the specific goals of ensuring the election of a Constitutional Committee and the direct election of provincial governors and mayors, as well as push for the law of “political exclusion” (al-‘Azl al-Siyasi), which would bar Gaddafi-era officials from positions in politics, business, administration and the security organs.
The bloc, comprising forty to fifty GNC members, includes a majority of the Salafis, National Front members, as well as representatives of local interests from the north-east and the Berber towns of the Nafusa Mountains.
To counterbalance the bloc’s demands for a sweeping exclusion of former regime officials, another larger bloc formed, “My Country” (Ya Biladi), drawing mainly on independents from southern and central Libya, as well as those close to the Alliance. The emergence of these blocs revealed what is the most salient divide in Libya’s political landscape today.
To be continued
Wolfram Lacher is an Associate in SWP’s Middle East and Africa Division
8- “National Congress Protests Statements by Magariaf”, al-Tadhamon, 2 October 2012, tinyurl.com/coj43vx (Arab language titles of newspaper articles are translated into English throughout).
9- The Qa’qa’ brigade founded by Mlegta is today led by his brother Othman, who was a local functionary under the old regime. The brigade, most of whose members come from Zintan, guards several important facilities in Tripoli, including the seat of a major media outlet close to the NFA. It is also notorious for making illegal arrests and seizing state property.
10- His political opponents from the Salafi camp accuse al-Muhalhil of speaking in support of the regime on state television at the beginning of the revolution. “Sufism” designates a spectrum of interpretations of Islam that are rooted in local traditions, often involve brotherhoods, and lean towards mysticism. Salafis regard Sufism as a heresy.
11- These were the designated minister of higher education,Abdessalam aldueibi, and the secretary of state for parliamentary affairs, Muizz al-Khuja. Khuja successfully appealedto the Supreme Court and took office in February 2013, alongwith another Alliance cabinet member, Religious Affairs Minister Abdessalam Abusaad, who also had to endure a prolonged investigation by the Integrity Commission. Abusaad resigned soon after assuming office.
12- “Mlegta: Alliance of National Forces in Libya Will Not Join Abushagur Cabinet”, Reuters, 18 September 2012; “Abushagur Presents Cabinet to National Congress”, al-Tadhamon, 4 October 2012, tinyurl.com/d54mpm8.
13- Al-Asala, “The Names of the Candidates Supported by al-Asala”, 27 June 2012, tinyurl.com/csg9rna.
14- Abdel Wahab Qaid is a former high-ranking LIFG member. His younger brother was a leading member of al-Qaeda known as Abu Yahya al-Libi, who was killed in 2012 in Pakistan. After the fall of the regime Qaid became commander of the border guards in southern Libya. He is associated with the Umma Party, which was founded by a group of former members of the Fighting Group and led by Sami al-Saadi, formerly the LIFG’s religious authority. Al-Saadi was nominated by Zeidan as Minister for Martyrs’ and Missing Persons’ Affairs, but resigned in protest at the composition of the cabinet.
15- These are the independents Mohammed al-Kilani and Mustafa al-Treiki, respectively commander and leading member of the Zawiya Martyrs Brigade.
16- Belhadj is a former LIFG leader and played an active role in the liberation of Tripoli. He is one of the most prominent figures in al-Watan, which also includes non-Islamist figures. The party’s failure to win a single list seat has triggered a reorientation among its leaders, which may contribute to a shake-up of the Salafi political spectrum.
17- The National Front is the successor to the National Front for the Salvation of Libya (al-Jabha al-Wataniya li-Inqadh Libya), which was long the most important organisation of the exile opposition. Magariaf is president of the GNC.
18- Discussion with party leader Mohamed Ali Abdallah al-Dharrat, Tripoli, November 2012.
19- Discussion with GNC members, Tripoli, November 2012.