Austin Bay
Successfully organizing, leading and, at particularly contentious moments, refereeing Libya's fragmented anti-Gadhafi opposition movement in the midst of a revolutionary war was 2011's most underappreciated political miracle.

2011's second-most underappreciated marvel was, in the wake of dictator Moammar Gadhafi's bloody demise, preventing this ad hoc coalition's welter of tribes, regional separatists, urban sophisticates and vengeance-seeking victims of tyranny from turning their rifles on one another. To his historic credit, Mahmoud Jibril, the leader tasked with both of these chaotic and personally dangerous undertakings, pulled off both miracle and marvel, and did so with skill.

Last week, Jibril reaped the rewards of successful wartime leadership as his secular National Forces Alliance (NFA) coalition won Libya's first national elections in roughly five decades, and arguably its first free, fair and legitimate election ever.

There is a lot to unpack in that last sentence. First fair election speaks volumes. Libyans bore Turkish and Italian imperial yokes, suffered King Sayyid Muhammad Idris' autocratic whims and Moammar Gadhafi's pernicious tyranny.

As for "secular political coalition": After witnessing political Islamist election victories in Libya's neighboring Arab Spring states, Tunisia and Egypt, fretful international media foresaw another Islamist victory. The more anxious anticipators warned of Islamist regional hegemony.

Now fret has turned to surprise and praise: a secular political party has triumphed in an Arab Muslim national election.

Indeed, the NFA's win, engineered by Jibril, deserves kudos. Jibril and the NFA are positioned to potentially form a government. The quiet bet, but one now heard in Cairo and Tunis, is that the NFA's liberal and secular leadership is better positioned to concentrate on economic revitalization, if for no other reason than its philosophical and political commitment to the democratic rule of law will attract long-term international investment.

The NFA victory potentially gives Tunisian and Egyptian Islamists political, economic and social competition. That competition is useful for sincere modernizers of any stripe, for all three elected governments must produce political change and economic vitality.

An NFA government is not a certainty. In Iraq's last national election, Ayad Allawi's very secular (and economically liberal) Iraqi List won the most votes of any single party, but it could not form a ruling coalition. The NFA still faces major challenges before it can form a government. Libya's transitional parliament will have 200 seats. The NFA won 39 of the 80 seats reserved for political parties and finished first in 11 of 13 regional districts. The other 120 seats went to independent candidates, and no one knows whom they will support.

The fretful speculate that the Islamist Justice and Construction party (JCP), regarded as an ally of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, will pressure independents into supporting it. However, the JCP only won 17 seats. The NFA's success in every region means it can legitimately claim to be Libya's national and nationalist party. According to one unofficial source, the NFA's victory in the Islamist-leaning town of Derna shocked the JCP. The NFA won some 59,700 votes; the JCP 8,600.

Which leads to parsing "successful wartime leadership."

According to StrategyPage.com (on July 9), 142 political parties ran candidates in the election. StrategyPage also noted that the war is not quite over -- 100,000 Libyans remain under arms, operating in over 200 militia organizations. The jigsaw puzzle of parties and micro-armies reflects the country's fear, political immaturity and post-dictatorship malaise.

Libya is a culturally Sunni Muslim society, and a majority of Libyans, even secular voters, would nod if characterized as religious conservatives. This culture is a source of unity that a savvy leader must use to bridge Libya's myriad divisions. Little wonder Jibril emphasizes the secular NFA's commitment to the Muslim legal tenets and publically contests the NFA's secularist label.

While facing wartime fire and hazard, and Gadhafi's well-paid assassins, Jibril repeatedly demonstrated a knack for fostering cooperation. His NFA coalition is a cooperative, consisting of several dozen political parties and scores of civic organizations. If any Libyan leader can forge a governing coalition, he can. If he does, he will position himself to pull off a 2012 political miracle.


Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
 
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