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Why Islamists Lost in Libya and Why Nobody Should Be Surprised

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Naysayers and second-guessers of NATO intervention in Libya, and of possible intervention in Syria, take your seats at the back of the room. Analysts and pundits who recklessly spread the uninformed opinion that the Muslim Brotherhood would claim victory in the elections, submit your resignation letters.

Those who have criticized me for my participation as an armed combatant in the Libyan revolution, saying that I had helped deliver a country into the arms of Islamists and al Qaeda, have now been proven wrong.

Libya has voted in the country's first democratic elections. Moderate, mainstream candidates have won an overwhelming victory, and the only surprise about this outcome was that anyone in the press was surprised by it.

And even more surprising, they still haven't really figured out all the reasons why moderates won.

The erroneous assumption that Islamists would be victorious in the Libyan elections was based largely on the simplistic rationale "well, it happened in Tunisia and Egypt." Aside from the fact that many Libyans wouldn't do what Tunisia and Egypt did simply out of spite (as anyone who has been to Libya can tell you, Libyans tend to have a superiority complex with regards to their neighbors), there were a multitude of reasons why an Islamist defeat in Libya was certain:

  1. The electoral process heavily favored the moderates: Because of delays in the candidate approval and appeals process the candidate list was announced on June 18, and with the election law stating that campaigns could only begin after the official list was released this left a little less than 3 weeks to campaign before the July 7 elections. A 3 week campaign period provided Mahmoud Jibril's moderate National Forces Alliance party with a tremendous incumbent-like advantage -- even though Jibril was banned from running as a candidate because he had been in the NTC, his image and name were used by the party as if he was a candidate. National Forces Alliance party propaganda had "Founded by Mahmoud Jibril" printed on it; he was clearly the public face of the party and there wasn't a voter in Libya who didn't know who he was. Libyans had no idea who most of the actual candidates were and had no opportunity to really get to know them during a 3 week campaign, but they knew Jibril so they voted for his party. Another effect of the 3 week campaign period was that parties based on ideology, meaning Islamists, had no chance to spread their message. They needed time to attract voters through old-fashioned campaigning -- spreading their ideas and neutralizing fears about what they really stood for -- which takes time (several months in U.S. elections) that they weren't allowed to have.
  2. Campaign spending limits: In addition to a limited campaign period, there were also legal limits on how much could be spent on campaigns. This made the dissemination of an ideological message and achieving name recognition with the public even more difficult for candidates and parties with whom voters aren't familiar.
  3. Jibril's strong, diverse, moderate coalition: The moderate candidates formed a largely unified coalition under Jibril's National Forces Alliance party that could dominate the elections and defeat the two main Islamist parties. The coalition included a diverse assortment of groups and personalities, from liberals to moderate Islamists. A unified coalition of moderates is the opposite of what happened in Egypt's recent presidential elections where the moderate-secularist vote was split between so many candidates that it paved the way for an Islamist victory.
  4. Jibril himself: Mahmoud Jibril is viewed favorably by many Libyans as their revolutionary prime minister who has the added benefit of an American degree and good relations with the West. As if that weren't enough, he is from the largest tribe in Libya, the Warfalla, which naturally drew many of their votes to his party.
  5. The two Islamist parties had baggage: The Muslim Brotherhood has two major strikes against them in Libya. They are viewed as collaborators for striking deals with the Gaddafi regime in the past and are viewed as pawns of Qatar which is rumored to be funding and supporting them. The other Islamist party, The Nation Party, lead by rebel military leader Abdelhakim Belhadj, draws support from his name at the cost of alienating many Libyans -- Belhadj is a controversial and sometimes maligned figure (often unjustly based on spurious rumors or misinformation). Despite his fighting Gaddafi long before many others dared to (starting in the 1990s), many Libyans I have spoken to have a negative opinion of him.
  6. The Islamists are unpopular: I have met very few Libyans who like Islamists. There is even a rumor in Libya that many Islamists refused to fight in the revolution because they had promised Saif Gaddafi they would not fight his father again as part of the conditions of their release from prison under Saif's de-radicalization program in 2010. A series of embarrassing actions by suspected Islamist activists and militants leading up to the elections -- the desecration of a WWII war cemetery and attacks on both U.S. and UK diplomats -- didn't help their image either.
  7. Islamists have little history in Libya: Gaddafi repressed Islamists to a far greater extent than they were in Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood ran social programs that earned them support from the people. After the revolution Libyan Islamists had to start from scratch and had little organization and less of a foundation of popular support from which to draw.
  8. Sharia: The National Forces Alliance party announced that Libyan laws would be guided by the principles of Islamic sharia law and by doing so neutralized a central appeal of the Islamists.
  9. Many voted along tribal or family lines: When voters choose candidates largely along familial or tribal associations (a result of the 3 week campaigns and culture) ideological candidates like Islamists are at a severe disadvantage.
  10. Moderates are currently in power, giving a type of incumbent advantage: Moderates led the revolution and have led Libya ever since. Although there is some criticism of the NTC in Libya the country is impressively stable and functional post-revolution. While members of the NTC were barred from running in these elections, those associated with them who could run and moderates in general enjoyed an incumbent advantage over Islamists who, for the most part, have been on the outside looking in since the revolution started.
  11. Islamists did not play a central role in the revolution: With a few notable exceptions, Islamists did not play a leading role in the revolution. The NTC was dominated by Mahmoud Jibril and other moderate individuals, and the military defections from the regime ensured that both the rebel military leadership and the weapons supply were not controlled by Islamists.
  12. NATO participation in the war: Even many Islamists acknowledge the key role played by NATO in the Libyan civil war. NATO's air campaign weakened Islamists politically by undermining their favorite tactic of blaming the Western world, while strengthening moderates who from the very start aligned themselves with the U.S. and Europe and by doing so set Libya on the path towards freedom. This is a lesson that should be paid particular attention with regards to Syria, where a similar NATO role may marginalize Islamists in Syria's first free elections following the eventual fall of Bashar al Assad.
  13. The federalism movement in eastern Libya: A small but vocal minority in eastern Libya boycotted the elections, largely because of a dispute over the distribution of seats between east, west and south Libya in the General National Congress. A more effective strategy would have been to run federalist candidates in the elections. This third option for voters -- Jibril, Islamists, or federalists -- would have diverted votes away from Jibril (who is the target of much federalist ire) and split the moderate vote, strengthening the Islamists in eastern Libya.
  14. The stakes were higher in Libya than in Tunisia or Egypt: These elections were paid for in blood. Libyans saw the Muslim Brotherhood victories in Tunisia and Egypt, heard the Muslim Brotherhood's calls for regional cooperation under the Brotherhood's banner (which sounded an awful lot like Gaddafi's pan-Arab and pan-African ambitions), and decided that they wanted none of it. Ideology and tangential issues like Palestine that would serve the Muslim Brotherhood well elsewhere fell on deaf ears in Libya where people were determined to elect a good government that could effectively bring security and rebuild Libya, and most importantly not squander the sacrifices of those who had died to achieve democracy by not electing serious, educated, capable and forward-thinking leaders to office.

As if all of these indicators weren't enough to signal an Islamist defeat in the elections, during my recent trip to Libya in June 2012 I simply asked Libyans what they thought about the elections and whom they intended to vote for. Hardly anyone supported the Islamists.

The Libyan elections were never about who would win. They were always about how badly the Islamists would lose. The Islamist defeat in Libya will hopefully bolster support for intervention in Syria, a revolution that resembles Libya far more than it does Egypt and where post-Assad elections are likely to follow the Libyan path, provided that help comes from the international community soon enough.

Libya election poster with a post with bullet holes in it in the foreground

Photo I took at Martyrs' Square in Tripoli, Libya in June, 2012 of a High National Election Commission poster, with a signpost riddled with bullet holes in the foreground. These elections came at a great cost in lives and Libyans were determined to get it right.