Libya Election Loser Mohammed Sawan’s Dangerous Words

The calm political dialogue that followed the historic first vote since the fall of Gaddafi is over, with the Muslim Brotherhood leader who lost making ‘alarming comments’ about winner Mahmoud Jibril. Jamie Dettmer reports from Tripoli.

07.14.12 8:45 AM ET

What a difference an election can make. Before Libyans cast their votes in their historic first post-Gaddafi election, the rhetoric of politicians was civil, a point noted by European Union electoral monitors. But post-election that’s changed, at least from one side.

Islamists have reacted badly to their rout last weekend at the hands of Dr. Mahmoud Jibril’s centrist National Forces Alliance, which has taken the lion’s share of the 80 seats reserved for parties in the 200-seat National Congress. Provisional final election results are expected Saturday, while a certified result comes next week. Libyan Islamists had not expected defeat amid a trend of Muslim Brotherhood success in neighboring countries swept up in the Arab Spring. Before the election they’d even engaged in coalition government negotiations with Jibril, thinking they would be the ones dictating the terms when votes were tallied.

Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Sawan now rejects any idea of a deal with Jibril. Raising the post-election temperature and offending Jibril’s allies, Sawan has publicly branded their champion, who served as a planning minister to Muammar Gaddafi but broke immediately with the regime when the rebellion started, of being a former ally of the ousted dictator and the electoral choice of old Gaddafi loyalists. Supporters point out that Jibril wasn’t a member of Gaddafi’s inner circle, spent as much time as he could overseas advising other Arab governments, and saw his reform plans for Libya rejected by the deposed dictator.

Sawan’s words are dangerous. Thuwars, or revolutionaries, in places like Misrata are deeply suspicious of the U.S.-educated Jibril, and Sawan’s remarks are riling them up further. “His comments are alarming,” says Omar Bakhet, a former U.N. diplomat working in Libya on a reconciliation mission for the European NGO International Democracy and Election Assistance.

“It is almost as though Sawan is encouraging a hit on Jibril,” protests an Alliance adviser who requested anonymity. “They aren’t the kind of things you should be saying when things are so volatile and every able-bodied male has a couple of Kalashnikovs.”

Playing on old fault lines may make things harder, too, for Jibril and his allies as they seek to shape a working majority in the National Congress. The political leanings of the winners of the 120 seats reserved for individual candidates will be unclear for days, if not weeks. All parties packed the individual candidate lists, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party may have been more adept than others. But the signs are that candidates with more local focus than national political affiliations have won the bulk of the seats. That’s likely to play to Jibril’s advantage as the man most likely able to unify the country around practical reform plans for a country that needs to kick-start its economy and trigger jobs.

The new Congress is tasked with overseeing the drafting of a new constitution and picking an interim prime minister and Cabinet. Prolonged political jockeying and horse-trading is likely to exasperate most Libyans, who supported the National Forces Alliance because they believed that it would be the antidote to the drift and ineffectiveness of the National Transitional Council that has ruled Libya the last nine months.

What ordinary Libyans want, judging by what they said when asked at the polling stations, is to finish the revolution. For them that means improvements in their everyday lives, with modernized infrastructure and sweeping institutional and judicial reform. Above all, they want to feel more secure and for the militias formed during and since the uprising to disarm and disband.

But for others the past remains the focus. Revolution will be finished only when all vestiges of the Gaddafi regime and anyone associated with it have gone. “We should put on trial all the buggers, everyone who was involved with Gaddafi, even if it takes 10 years,” says Abdul Rahman El Mansouri, a former political exile and Muslim Brotherhood supporter.

It will not be easy to persuade militias to disband with payback sentiments like those. Some militias are still hell-bent on wreaking revenge on regime loyalists or old tribal and ethnic foes, putting right, from their point of view, the wrongs of the past, some stretching back decades. Or as Abu Bakr, a militia commander from the hardscrabble mountain town of Zintan, puts it: “There were winners and losers in the war. How come politicians are saying, ‘Now we are equal’?” We won; they lost. Hard luck. We can do what we want with them now.”

Other militia commanders say they are reluctant to disband until militias from other towns and cities do so first or until a national army has been raised and is able along with a national police to enforce the rule of law. Ahmed Ali Al-Ateri, the commander of Zintan’s militia, says that without armed formations like his, “There would be anarchy.”

And then there are the militia commanders and gunmen whose armed role gives them a swagger and significance they didn’t have before the uprising. They could be the hardest to disarm. Jobs will be a key ingredient to throw into the mix. Without work, many militiamen will have little incentive to disband.

An immediate challenge for Jibril and his allies even before they have had a chance to form a coalition government will be to join the transitional council in trying to defuse a menacing armed standoff between Misrata, a hardcore anti-Gaddafi town, and Bani Walid, one of the last Gaddafi holdouts during the uprising. Bani Walid gunmen seized two Misrata-based journalists covering the elections and has refused to free them. The Misrata militia has responded by encircling Bani Walid with forces made up of hundreds of armored vehicles and about 150 tanks plus heavy artillery.

The militias are not the only security threats to Libya, as it transitions from dictatorship to democracy. Radical Salafists in eastern Libya launched several attacks in May and June on foreign missions, including the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. They came close to killing the British ambassador when he visited the city. Their attacks were unskilled until last Sunday, when they blew up a Sufi mosque in Derna. Previous attacks involved rudimentary improvised explosive devices or Molotov cocktails, but the Derna bomb was more sophisticated.