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Libya's election 'neither Islamist, nor liberal'?

John ThorneThe Christian Science Monitor

Today Libyans were digesting headlines that confirm what many suspected: electoral victory for a coalition of parties that has dodged labels while calling for national unity.

The National Forces Alliance coalition (NFA), led by former interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, won nearly half of the seats reserved for parties in Libya’s new congress, according to results from July 7 elections that were released last night.

While media have trumpeted a liberal victory that bucks an Arab Spring trend of Islamist successes, some Libyans see things differently.

“Jibril’s in the middle,” says Ali al-Arabi, tending his cigarette shop in Tripoli’s bus station. “And that’s what I want: someone who’s neither Islamist nor liberal.”

Shunning both the liberal tag and its opposite in Libya, political Islam, Mr. Jibril has called for partnering with rivals – including a runner-up Islamist party – to form a government.

It is unclear how parties will respond, while independent candidates that hold 120 of the congress's 200 seats are still an unknown quantity.

For Mr. Arabi, cooperation is the best way to remake Libya following decades under the autocratic rule of Muammar Qaddafi, toppled by revolt last year.

“We have so many things that need to be set right,” he says, sliding a pack of Marlboros across the counter to a customer. “Like weapons – they should go to the government.”

The uprising that brought down Mr. Qaddafi’s regime also empowered numerous militias who have continued to challenge the interim authorities.

Many people want a new government to ramp up efforts to fold militias into national armed forces. Shoddy public services and high unemployment are also major concerns.

That sentiment favored Jibril, who stressed pragmatism over politicking. The NFA took 39 of 80 seats reserved for parties.

But while the largest voter bloc supported Jibril’s message, the second-largest supported that of the Justice and Construction party, which took 17 seats.

Its leader, Mohamed Sowane, wants modern infrastructure and a “civil state” in which law does not contradict sharia, he says, stressing Islam as a key element of rebuilding Libya.

“We believe the basis of renewal is the building of the human being, based on the values that he has faith in,” he says. “This is different from the liberals and secularists here, who think that technology is everything.”

Mr. Sowane denies widespread claims here that his party is an arm of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.

“But in terms of ideas, we like their moderate thinking,” he says. “No extremism, no violence, but rather hospitality and openness.”

For some Libyans, Sowane’s religious tastes are too strong. Yet neither does there appear to be much appetite here for Western-style separation of religion and state. Even though it is a rival to Islamist parties, in its manifesto the NFA nevertheless cites Islam as Libyan society’s “reference” and calls for sharia to be the main basis of legislation.

For Arabi, easy familiarity with Islam helps explains why many voters – including himself – felt no need to back Islamist parties.

“People saw the success of Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt and expected the same thing here,” he says. But while those countries’ dictators cracked down on Islamic groups, “Here Islam has always been present – moderate Islam.”

Less present are female leaders whom some hoped the July 7 elections would empower. While many women ran as candidates, only 29 appear to have won congressional seats, according to yesterday’s results.

For Shahrazad Magrabi, president of the Libyan Woman’s Forum, which helped train female candidates, that showing is due partly to women voters.

“I feared from the beginning that women wouldn’t vote for women,” she says. “They’re brought up to think that men should take charge of the country.”

Some parties appeared to heed a law requiring them to present women candidates in haphazard fashion, according to Mrs. Magrabi.

“They were rallied at the last minute,” she says. “Parties were calling me late at night to ask for names of women to put on their lists.”

Nevertheless, the elections served as a helpful trial run for female candidates, she says. Her assessment of them could equally describe Libyans in general: “They’re getting involved in democracy.”