The election of Mohammed Magarief as president of Libya’s General National Congress on August 10 is a sign of the Libyan people’s search for unity and will to continue on the path toward democratization. Despite increasing security problems and the many centrifugal pressures present in the Libyan polity, the Congress managed to elect a president and two deputies in perfect adherence to the timeline set by the outgoing National Transitional Council and in full accordance with the established rules. This is an important step towards the construction of the institutions needed for Libya’s democracy to take root.
The selection of Magarief also deserves a more sophisticated analysis than it has received in the Western press, which has defined him as “pro-Islamist,“ showing a lack of understanding not only of the person but also of the dynamics that led to his election. Mohammed Magarief might be a pious and respectful Muslim but nothing in his history, personal or political, suggests he should be characterized as pro-Islamist. Rather he is a pragmatist with more of a secular vision of society and politics than a religious one.
Magarief does share some of the ideas of the Libyan Islamists and is ready to engage them at all levels, but the dynamics of his election show he was not the Islamists’ first choice. The Islamists supported Magarief’s candidacy only after their preferred candidate, Abdulrahman Sewehli, came in third in the first round of voting after Ali Zidan (the candidate of Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance) and Magarief. Islamists then voted for Magarief in the second round in order to deny victory to Jibril’s candidate. Thus Magarief was a compromise candidate for the Islamists.
Magarief is a sound choice for many reasons. Hailing from eastern Libya, he will appease inhabitants of that region and dampen the fervor of their federalist tendencies. Furthermore, he represents a clear break with the past because he defected from the Qaddafi regime in 1980, unlike many other contenders for the position, who defected far more recently. Other supporters of the new president point to his decision-making abilities and his charismatic personality.