Abigail Hauslohner writes: Libya seems relentlessly committed to proving the pessimists wrong. When last year’s revolution quickly evolved into a brutal civil war, the international community — and indeed many Libyans — warned of a quagmire down the road. “God is great” served as the rebel battle cry in the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, and the jihadists the dictator had once repressed rose to prominence as militia leaders and politicians in the vacuum left by his fall. Libya has always been a conservative and largely homogenous country; its population of 6 million is almost entirely Sunni Muslim. And that’s why when Libyans went to vote last weekend in the first national election since 1965, many observers assumed — with good reason — that if neighboring Tunisia and Egypt had elected Islamist governments in the aftermath of their revolutions, surely Libya — of all places — would follow suit.But in the past 18 months since the start of the Arab Spring, Libya has also served as the Arab world’s anomaly: waging war when others waged protests, overthrowing an entire regime rather than simply its strongman, and most recently, demonstrating remarkable stability despite the odds. As election results trickle in this week, Libya appears poised to buck yet another Arab Spring trend: the Islamist rise.
Weeks after Egypt elected Mohamed Morsy, the first Islamist president in the country’s history—and just months after it elected a parliament dominated by Morsy’s Muslim Brotherhood — Libya has done the exact opposite. Early electoral results indicate that the liberal, secular-leaning National Forces Alliance of Mahmoud Jibril, the former wartime Prime Minister of the rebels’ National Transitional Council (NTC), has swept the majority of the country’s new parliament. Even Libya’s newly empowered Muslim Brotherhood has conceded that it failed to win a majority of the assembly’s 200 seats. And indeed, as the newly elected body moves to select a government to replace the NTC this month, Jibril may well become Libya’s first post-revolution prime minister.
All that may have some observers blinking and blind-sighted in the Libyan sunlight, but analysts on the ground say it makes more sense than you might think. To start, many Libyans voted along tribal and familial lines, rather than according to ideological alliances. And analysts say that political inexperience may have fragmented support for the Islamists even as Jibril’s broad coalition, benefited from well-known personalities and parties that span the country’s tribes and cities.
But many also point out that Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Islamist militia leaders like Abdel Hakim Belhaj — once a terror suspect tortured and extradited by the CIA, and now the head of one of the better organized political parties — never had the popularity that their counterparts had in neighboring Egypt. After all, Egypt’s ousted authoritarian, Hosni Mubarak, had allowed the Brotherhood to cultivate charity networks and even run for parliament. It may have all been part of a decades-long scheme to convince Egyptians and Egypt’s allies that the country’s options for governance were limited to two extremes, but the end result was that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood was more prepared. Gaddafi on the other hand never tolerated the Islamists — or even weak political parties. Men with beards or political sympathies were so regularly monitored and rounded up, that many Libyans said it was a crime to be religious or have opinions. Few bothered to try.
That rise from exile and repression may have given Libya’s Islamists an early boost when it came to political organizing during the uprising, but it also meant that they were starting at square one — just like everybody else. When TIME met with one of the Muslim Brotherhood’s senior leaders in Tripoli late last year, he admitted that he had no idea how many members the group even had inside the country. “Yesterday was the first time we met in Tripoli not underground,” Alamin Belhaj said shortly after the rebels took control of the capital. “The Brotherhood has been around for a long time, since 1951. But after Gaddafi came, it vanished.” [Continue reading…]