On July 11, the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council hosted a panel of experts to discuss the preliminary election results and the political outlook for the Libya.
Gregory Kehailia, senior program manager for the Middle East and North Africa at IFES, Fadel Lamen, president of the American Libyan Council, and Dr. Essam Omeish, director of the Libyan Emergency Taskforce gave their assessment of the election and the future of the General National Congress that will take over governing authority from the National Transitional Council. Dr. Karim Mezran, Hariri Center senior fellow, moderated the discussion.
Mr. Kehailia began the discussion by describing the election process highlighting that despite isolated incidents of violence, the authorities were able to open 98.5 percent of all polling centers on Election Day. He highlighted the 63 percent voter turnout and the high number of female participation, representing about 50 percent of voters. He also commented that the IFES field team observed great professionalism on behalf of Libyan election authorities and declared the elections a success “so far,” since counting, tallying, and announcing the results are a major part of the process that has yet to be completed. This assessment is shared by the UN electoral support team in Libya, the EU’s own monitoring team, the Carter Center, and others.
Kehailia indicated that Libya’s High National Electoral Committee had faced tremendous challenges in organizing the election. The committee’s members were sworn in in February 2012, leaving them only six months to organize the election. The members had no practical experience in electoral organizing and the committee had to build an administrative capacity from scratch and develop methodologies for registering voters and finalizing candidate lists. He stated that the decision to postpone the election from June 19 to July 7 was a responsible one that helped ensure the election’s success.
He also highlighted some criticism of the election. Kehailia stated that he believed that the electoral system set up by the election committee was too complex; a system based on three different overlapping systems. Combined with the fact that 120 out of the 200 seats for the new assembly were reserved for independent candidates, many Libyans did not truly understand who or what they were voting for. He also said that voter education on behalf of the authorities was poor, but that in itself was not unusual for a first election and voter enthusiasm drove the participation rate up. He also commented that it was too early to confirm results and that announced partial results from small constituencies could not be used to establish a pattern, although indicators point to a possible victory of Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance over the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Development Party.
Fadel Lamen reminded the audience that elections cannot be equated with a functioning government. The hope is that the election is a first step leading to successful transition, he said. Lamen also echoed Mr. Kehalia’s concerns about communication problems between election authorities, parties, and the voting public. As a result of the majority proportion of seats reserved for independent candidates, most Libyans voted for people they knew personally or trusted, not necessarily based on a candidate’s viewpoint. He also noted that whoever wins the party vote will not have a majority and will have to appeal to all the independent candidates to form a governing coalition. He expressed concerns about Jibril’s ability to keep his alliance of various parties and civil society groups together in a high stakes political environment.
Lamen also highlighted the influence of tribal representatives, regional partisans, and former regime elements and sympathizers as major players outside the assembly that will have influence on Libyan politics and the country’s internal stability. Despite the added legitimacy of being an elected body, the General National Assembly will still have to deal with the same issues the NTC refused to deal with. The question is whether or not the assembly will confront the challenges facing the country, or if it will continue to delay action, waiting for a non-interim government in the future to deal with those issues.
Dr. Essam Omeish elaborated on concerns about Jibril’s National Forces Alliance. He stated that it was doubtful that a coalition of forty parties and over 100 civil society groups could remain a coherent political force. While the Muslims Brotherhood’s party might come in a distant second in the party vote, it could still take advantage of the system to carve out an alliance with independent candidates, especially if the National Forces Alliance succumbs to infighting. The Brotherhood might be able to articulate a better and more cohesive platform and national agenda – and if it does, people will flock to them. The Brotherhood can still make political progress on the local grassroots level where it does well in certain constituencies.
During the question and answer session, the participants discussed further the transition of power from the NTC to the new assembly. Despite having made some last minute pre-election decrees changing the assembly’s function and structure, the new assembly could invalidate any NTC decree. Mr. Lamen also stated that any emerging governing coalition would need a 60 to70 percent majority in order to effectively push through a national agenda; otherwise the assembly would descend into gridlock.
In discussing the issue of federalism, and the federalist advocates who have employed violent strategies to advance their cause, Dr. Omeish said he believed such groups would ultimately implode and disappear. Mr. Lamen agreed that the federalists do not enjoy widespread support among Libyans as they are mostly from one tribe.
On the integration of militias, Mr. Lamen noted that if the new assembly is not able to tackle the security situation, militia leaders could attempt to lead a soft coup. Dr. Karim Mezran noted that Libya would also need to avoid the development of a patronage system that would lead to nepotism and corruption.