By Umar Khan
July 17, 2013
The overthrow of Mohamed Morsi, the first Egyptian president from the long-persecuted Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) will have a lasting impact on the politics of the region. Given its historical, social and geographical position, developments in Egypt are always felt in the region – and it was no different in the Arab awakening. It was the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime that encouraged the Libyans to rise against the former dictator, Muammar Qaddafi.
The recent ambush on the legitimacy of the Egyptian president and mandate of the Ikhwan has made the Islamists weary of the whole democratic process; this situation is sure to impact so-called political Islam. Egypt’s political scene has always affected Libya and this crisis is already disillusioning the religious armed brigades from the democratic process in the country.
The Egyptian crisis has encouraged people in Libya to demand the dissolution of the Islamist-led highest legislative body, the General National Congress (GNC). Forming government in Egypt was an experiment for Islamists in the region who were hesitant in trusting the ballot box but were being persuaded by other religious scholars who saw the democratic process as the best way to move forward.
It was right after the military coup in Egypt that efforts to dissolve both the interim government and the GNC of Libya found some support. The fall of Morsi and the Ikhwan in Egypt led to a series of accusations on the Libyan Ikhwan, which is part of both the interim government and the GNC. A major campaign was launched to malign Islamists elsewhere to eventually repeat the Egyptian scenario.
It was really after the GNC election in Libya that the faultlines started to emerge between the Islamists (Muslim Brotherhood, Salafi) and self-proclaimed liberals. These had originally been drawn during the eight-month revolution on the basis of distrust between the groups and the international support different groups were getting to further their agenda.
The GNC is a 200-member body that was elected on July 7, 2012 in the first election in over four decades. The electoral law distributed the 200 seats as 80 seats reserved for party lists and the other 120 for individual candidates. Self-proclaimed liberals managed to secure 39 out of 80 party-lists seats. However, they were only able to secure 40 out of the 120 seats reserved for individuals. The voter turnout of 62 percent was enough to award it the mandate to see Libya through this tough time.
The elections were organised by the National Transition Council (NTC) of Libya that emerged in the beginning of the revolution as the de facto government. It ruled for roughly 17 months and gave Libya its first elections and then, setting a healthy precedent, exited the political scene.
The Arab awakening had ushered in a new era for political Islam across the region, encouraging participation of people who were once involved in an armed struggle against previous regimes in the name of religion. Most of these people, who had agreed to take part in the elections, had been staunchly opposing democracy for the better part of their lives but the shift in the dynamics of this region made them redefine their strategy. Persuading radicals to become a part of the electoral process was considered one of the most important achievements of Arab awakening – until recently.
Libya was hoping to buck the trend of chaos that followed the Arab awakening with massive participation of religious leaders in the polls. Some of the leaders who contested elections in Libya were former jihadis who had been arrested and renditioned back to Libya after the US-Afghan war.
The idea of democracy wasn’t attractive for many who looked at it with suspicion, thinking of it in terms of western influence. They considered it a western tool designed to dictate policies to Muslim countries and were not willing to accept it. This was the case with several groups in Libya, mostly from the conservative eastern part. They were not only apprehensive of the idea of democracy but were ready to resist it and their intent was shown clearly in a rally they held in the second biggest city of Benghazi in eastern Libya.
The success of Islamist parties in Egypt and Tunisia was the push that many in Libya needed to convince others of democracy’s importance in today’s world. Meetings were held and many were successful to the extent that some of these groups launched political bodies/parties with an eye to participate in the future elections. However, with each emerging detail about the Egyptian coup, they would think their suspicions were not unfounded.
The divisions in the GNC, that nearly reflects the fragmented Libyan society, were clear from the beginning when the formation of the crisis government was delayed. This was followed by the removal of the first prime minister before he took over his role; when his cabinet was twice rejected for not being ‘inclusive’. Libya is currently going through a rough patch and trying to cope up with post-revolutionary problems.
The Qaddafi loyalists, although in minority, are still trying to destabilise the country for personal gains. The remaining members of the Qaddafi family, currently in Oman, have distanced themselves from any trouble but some aides of the slain dictator are still involved in creating disturbance. Qaddafi ruled for 42 years, but by pitting tribe against tribe and awarding key positions to influential tribes. Now these people are struggling to move on, realising they don’t stand at the same positions they used to and some are conspiring with exiled leaders to undermine the new rulers.
The problems in Turkey and Tunisia were slight indicators and the hurdles faced by the Islamist rulers of Egypt did not go unnoticed by some groups. The distrust that many influential leaders were trying to curb was only growing as there was nothing substantial on the ground to support the assertions made by these leaders. On the contrary, wherever Islamists rose to power through democratic elections, their mandate was undermined by either court rulings or foreign pressure.
These signs were enough for a few leaders in Libya who started planning to reactivate the armed brigades that had not been dissolved, only temporarily sidelined. They argue that Islamists would never be allowed to govern even if they were to win overwhelming majority at the ballot box. Instead they (Islamists) only fall prey to conspiracies – and they want to be ready when this happens.
The lack of faith in democracy was deep-seated in the Islamists, but was slowly changing with the new dynamics. However, it is back to square one now. After the recent events in Egypt, mistrust is at its peak and one notion that many Islamists are increasingly turning to is, ‘its only democracy when we (Islamists) lose. There are more than a few examples from the recent past to learn from’.
The unfortunate and bloody events in Egypt have made the task of inviting Islamists for political dialogue almost impossible. They have put Libya at risk of descending into further chaos since groups that were once hoping to spread change through the democratic process will now seek other ways of achieving their goals.
Umar Khan is a freelance journalist based in Libya, covering Mena and the wider Arab region.