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Libya's Big Step Forward... Then What?

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Under a cloud of sporadic militia-inspired violence and divisive regional rivalries which have rocked the nation since its liberation, Libyans triumphantly flocked to the polls on Saturday in their first election in 40 years to elect 200 representatives to a new national congress -- which was supposed to be empowered to draft a new constitution for the nation within 18 months. Recall that it was merely 9 months ago that rebel Libyan forces, supported by NATO and its Arab allies, liberated Tripoli, ending the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi.

For all of the good cheer on election day, there were sad reminders that the Transitional National Council (TNC) -- which has struggled to rule Libya since Gaddafi's demise -- remains locked in a bitter contest with unruly, violent-prone militias and tribal gunmen who continue to roam vast swaths of Libya, refusing to lay down their arms. Adding to the central government's headaches is a rebellious Islamist-oriented eastern province centered around Libya's second largest city, Benghazi, which has threatened to tear Libya apart by seceding from the country.

Just how difficult it has been for the TNC was revealed when, on the eve of the vote, it capitulated to demands of the Benghazi-based Islamist-oriented separatists and stripped the new congress of its constitution-drafting duties. The Benghazi-based faction feared the new congress was stacked in favor of the more populous western Libya (indeed the west was allocated 100 seats to the east's 60).

The TNC mandated a separate election for a smaller constitution-drafting assembly composed of an equal number of delegates from each part of the country. The unexpected decree is sure to set the stage for a major struggle between the outgoing TNC and the newly elected congress over the future authority of the congress in the constitution drafting process (shades of Egypt's contest of wills over its future constitution between secular liberals and Islamists).

However, over 90% of the nation's polls were open and, by most accounts, Libyans flocking to the polls transformed the day into a national celebration. The fact that the election was held at all is a victory of sorts for the interim government, which was compelled to postpone it several times.

Having visited Libya several times, it is hard for outsiders to fathom how much Libyans have to invent from scratch every step toward democracy without a script. Gaddafi stripped Libya of any body of laws or viable political or government institutions (other than what amounted to his edicts contained in that reviled Green Book of his). Aside from the long-forgotten legacy of the King Idris monarchy, which Gaddafi overthrew in 1969, here is simply no non-Gaddafi legacy on which to rely for guidance and direction. Indeed, many of the candidates for the congress had little to contribute to the cause of Libyan national solidarity, campaigning instead more like local Chicago aldermen than prospective national leaders.

In the coming weeks, the TNC is supposed to dissolve when the congress appoints a new prime minister, who in turn, will appoint a new government. But the TNC's dissolution will, in my judgment, depend on whether the new congress surrenders to the will of the TNC and abides by its edict to hold a separate election for a new constitutional assembly.

All this begs the question: who will emerge as the leader of Libya by having won enough votes to form a majority alliance or coalition in the new congress?

What to watch for in the days ahead insofar as parties and leaders likely to grab headlines as each the new "congressmen and congresswomen" maneuver for control over the future government:

 The Libyan faction of the Muslim Brotherhood (yes, Libya has the Brothers largely centered in Benghazi) headed by Mohammed Sawan, who was imprisoned by Gaddafi for almost a decade. Sawan is the major instigator behind the TNC's decision to rescind the constitution drafting authority from the newly elected congress.

 The Alliance of National Forces (ANF) (which is secular and liberal), led by Mahmoud Jibril, who served as the rebels interim prime minister leading up to Gaddafi's downfall. Jibril hails from Libya's largest tribe -- the Warfala. Jibril was precluded from holding an elected position in the new congress because of the restriction barring TNC members from running, but given the popularity of the ANF and Jibril himself as a major tribal leader, he is bound to have major influence in the future government.

 Libya has its own brand of Salafists, who represent the more virulent Islamists in the country. The Salafists formed their own political party (Al Watan or the Nation Party and includes remnants of the Libyan Fighting Group terrorist organization that had been affiliated with Al Qaeda).

 The National Front Party (NFP), which is the more "mild" Islamist opposition leadership of Libya. The NFP is composed of former Libyan exile groups and militants who launched a series of attacks against Qadaffi and his regime during his rule. The NFP is headed by a highly respected Libyan nationalist -- Mohammed al Magarif

 The most secular party likely to also gain significant representation is the centrist National Party led by former American-educated and respected TNC oil and finance minister, Ali Tarhouni.

All this is to suggest that Saturday's election has set the stage for a struggle for power between secularists and Islamists on the one hand, and between westerners and Benghazi Islamists on the other -- playing out against the continuing violence and lawlessness that the new government will have to subdue quickly if it is to gain the respect of the millions of Libyans who voted on Saturday.