x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 December 2017

Where it went wrong for Libya's Islamists

To some, it is bewildering that they have underperformed in Libya's election after well-organised moderate Islamists swept to postrevolutionary power in Egypt and Tunisia.

TRIPOLI // With most of the votes counted, a political bloc with a distinctly liberal air looks set to build a coalition and lead the new government in Libya, raising hard questions among the Islamist parties trailing in their wake.

After a landmark election on July 7, which most agree went relatively smoothly, a coalition led by the former prime minister Mahmoud Jibril dominated the party poll. In one district in the capital, it won almost 10 times the votes of the nearest rival.

Only 80 seats out of 200 in the new General National Assembly are allotted to parties, with the rest composed of individual candidates, though Mr Jibril's National Forces Alliance seems likely to recruit enough individuals to build a ruling coalition and begin the body's primary work of creating a council to write a constitution.

To some, this is bewildering, after well-organised moderate Islamists swept to postrevolutionary power in Egypt and Tunisia.

Licking their wounds, Islamists are now asking themselves what steered Libyan voters so firmly away from them.

One group, whose vast purple-and-grey posters still hang all over Tripoli, is Al Watan, headed by Abdelhakim Belhaj. Unlike Mr Jibril, who was a figurehead for the party but not a candidate, Mr Belhaj stood as a candidate in Tripoli, although he seems  unlikely to win the seat.

Mr Belhaj fought for years against Muammar Qaddafi's regime, conducting operations from Sudan, following a spell as a fighter in Afghanistan. Although his party officials stress their inclusiveness, he is seen as a staunch Islamist.

This week, in their smart offices, Emhemmed Ghula, a spokesman, had received word from observers of their dismal showing and rattled through the reasons why.

"People perceive that Islamists are trying to change things," he said. He accused Mr Jibril's party of spreading propaganda and said that voters had heard rumours that Islamists would force women to wear niqabs and forbid them to drive cars.

Among worshippers emerging from a popular mosque in Tripoli yesterday, his assessment seemed correct.

"The Islamists didn't win, and they won't win. We consider them extremists," said one woman with two small children who gave her first name, Amal. "I would think of immigration. They will control the way I dress, I won't be able to go out to the shops freely or sit with my friends."

Dressed in a headscarf and long coat in the sweltering heat, Amal - and her husband Lotfi - are Muslim but were worried that Libya might become "like Afghanistan under the Taliban" if Islamist parties had won.

Although Libyans are almost universally conservative Sunnis, the idea of a religious politicians is irksome to some. "We are all Muslims," said Ghaith Al Juweili, a lawyer emerging from the same seafront mosque. "When they say they're an Islamic party, it's like they are questioning our Islam."

Mr Juweili expressed another common view, that Islamists, particularly those affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, are from "outside" Libya.

Many religious or political people, often after prison or threats, left Qaddafi's Libya and lived for years in exile.

"They were under air conditioners, while the poor people were the real revolutionaries," he said.

Members of the Brotherhood-linked Justice and Development party stress that they are inclusive and moderate, but they find it hard to overcome a deep suspicion of foreigners and paranoia about a hidden agenda.

Muhammad Sowan, the head of the party, said he felt that the Libyan people had been deceived by the National Forces Alliance into voting for someone more secular than they would have liked.

"The coalition at the top, they presented themselves as a party that has Islam as a reference," he said. "After the preliminary results, people are starting to market the alliance as liberal - but liberals would not have won the elections."

Mr Sowan anticipated a reaction on the streets by people when they realised the trick, but conceded that much of the appeal of the rivals depended on their focus on Mr Jibril, who was not a candidate and is cagey about what role he sees for himself in the new government, but who commands great respect among people.

Some put his success down to simple brand recognition. As the leader of the transitional council that lobbied for international support of last year's armed rebellion, he is instantly recognisable, and his coalition's posters featured just him, casting a vote, and a picture of a cactus.

Although some reject tribalism in politics, in a country where party democracy is brand-new, the old ties are also important. Mr Jibril is from the Warfalla tribal group, one of the largest in Libya and historically allied with Qaddafi, a factor that may have broadened his appeal among groups who did not support last year's uprising.

Even outside the urban centres, support for Mr Jibril and rather vague ideas of what he represents seems strong. In the back room of a heat-soaked cafe in the mountain town of Zintan, Khalifa Al Sebaie, an unemployed engineer, said that he hoped the National Forces Alliance would win.

With half an eye on the television showing gyrating women and flashy cars in a music video, he said that he thought life under Mr Jibril would be, "not exactly like this, but maybe a bit more flexible than now".

Asked why people had defied a ruling by the Libyan grand mufti Sadiq Al Ghariani that the National Forces Alliances was not Islamic and should not be voted for, he shrugged.

"This is freedom and democracy," he said, "and being told what to do feels like the old regime."