Libya’s Optimistic Leader: Mahmoud Jibril Poised for Historic Election Victory

Jibril, leader of the Libyan party poised to win elections, says Libya will change. By Jamie Dettmer.

Marco Longari, AFP / Getty Images

TRIPOLI, LIBYA—Libya took a giant step towards democracy with an election that went better than many had forecast. But the vote wasn’t exactly wrinkle- or incident-free, and what went amiss provides plenty of hints about the challenges ahead as the divided country struggles to transition from dictatorship.

Even if some Libyans boycotted the polls, Mahmoud Jibril, leader of the centrist National Forces Alliance, whose political alliance of several smaller parties appears to have done well in the election, is not deterred by an arguably disappointing turnout—reportedly less than two thirds of the nation cast a ballot.

In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast and BBC last night, his first with the international media since the polls, he said it is a matter of not “looking at the glass as half empty but half full.” He says the election was a remarkable achievement, arguing that “1.7 million people voted. That’s the most positive thing in a country where there is no real legacy of democracy whatsoever—this is something unbelievable. This is my focus, focusing on the half of the glass that’s full.”

Jibril avoided saying what role he will play in a coalition government. It isn’t clear that he wants the prime minister’s job, and there is no mention of a president at this stage in the road map that was laid out by the Constitutional Declaration, the only legal framework to guide post-Gaddafi Libya. He says he only wants a job that allows him to be effective.

He will need to maintain his upbeat outlook in the coming months.

The key challenges for the 200-member national assembly that Libyans were voting for at the weekend, and for any prime minister the assembly appoints, will be to unite this North African country of 6 million, to encourage fractious Libyans to work together to develop and accept new state structures, and to reconcile those who fought on opposing sides in the civil war that ended with Colonel Gaddafi’s ouster nine months ago. Another major obstacle to stabilizing the country will be to persuade the more than 100 militias that were formed during and since the uprising to disband and disarm. The Warriors Affairs Commission set by up by the National Transitional Council—the body that the national assembly will replace—estimates there are more than 200,000 armed fighters in Libya now.

Uniting the country and transitioning to democracy is going to be a herculean task. Deep animosities from the uprising and Gaddafi’s brutal efforts to suppress it remain, and old regional, tribal, and ethnic rivalries have been aggravated, triggering clashes in the south and the western mountains and prompting a federalist movement in the east that turned more aggressive in the run-up to the polls. Federalists sought to disrupt voting in eastern Libya, killing an election worker Friday when they shot at a helicopter and raiding polling stations on election day.

The road ahead for anyone who leads Libya is going to be rocky. Jibril, a former economy minister in the Gaddafi regime and an economic adviser to several Arab countries, is reluctant to claim victory and is dampening down speculation that his alliance has won the majority of seats when it comes to the 80 seats in the assembly that the parties competed for.

Two things he emphasizes: his alliance should not be held responsible for media reports that it has won the majority of party seats, and he believes all parties should come together to form a coalition. The challenges ahead demand that, he said. Asked by The Daily Beast whether his alliance could form a governing coalition with the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party, he doesn’t hesitate. “Yes, of course, why not? As long as we can agree on certain objectives, I think why not.”

The alliance will probably have no choice. While it may have won when it comes to party seats, possibly winning more than all the main Islamist parties combined, it remains unclear who will dominate the 120 seats that 2,501 individual candidates contended for. All the main parties did their best to pack the individual list of candidates with party loyalists, and Jibril’s advisers concede privately that when all votes are tallied, the Muslim Brothers may have sneaked out ahead of the alliance and others in terms of individual candidates.

Hence, Jibril’s careful language ahead of the results: he doesn’t want to offend by boasting of victory, and he’s positioning himself as the man who can form an effective coalition, something he started doing ahead of the polls by holding discussions with the Muslim Brothers and Al-Watan, another Islamist party, say his advisers.

Says Jibril, “What we need now is national unity.”

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A former economics professor at the University of Pittsburgh, Jibril pulls no punches when it comes to how the country has been governed in the last nine months by the 102-strong National Transitional Council led by Mustafa Abdel Jalil, a former Gaddafi justice minister. He believes a small exclusive group of ideological extremists within the NTC has been controlling and manipulating it and doing a bad job as a result. “Once when meeting them, I said I thought the meeting was a joke.”

Jibril was instrumental in forming the NTC at the start of the uprising, believing that “there should be body talking to the world.” Neither Tunisian nor Egyptian rebels formed such an umbrella group. “That is why the revolution has been stolen in those countries early,” he says. But the transitional leaders failed to take the action they should have, he says, and were too exclusionary, coming up with laws that weren’t discussed. “People who started the rebellion felt excluded.”

He said that all the major decisions and laws the NTC introduced should be sent to the constitutional court for revision. That includes a last-minute one that stripped the new assembly of the right to appoint a constitution-drafting body and to hand that responsibility to the voters with regional elections. Clearly the lack of transparency by the NTC irritated Jibril. He himself resigned from the body last October. He says any coalition that’s formed needs to “set the rule of law as the supreme cardinal virtue that we all adhere to.”

In the interview—and in his careful public pronouncements in the wake of the elections—Jibril comes across as a chess player cautiously playing the board and arranging the pieces. The challenges facing Libya along with the complex electoral system the NTC came up with that ensured no one party would have an overall majority dictates difficult navigation. Jibril has few hostages to fortune out there when it comes to ideology. “I don’t believe in ideology, as simple as that. I believe ideology is some sort of prison. The new age should be one of creativity, one of initiative, one of risk taking. All of these things are the opposite of ideology,” he says.

The one given is that as new laws are developed, they should have a “reference to Sharia,” a demand of the Muslim Brothers as well. But even here he seeks to reassure. “Sharia law, when it was understood in the proper way, managed to create one of the great civilizations in human history. The problem is not with Sharia or Islam; the problem is with the interpretation of Sharia. When we turn Islam into some ritual, into a box, when we say ‘You do this, you are an atheist’ or ‘You do this, and you are a believer,’ this in not helpful to Islam.”

Asked what form of government would be best for the new Libya, he replies: “This is for Libyans to decide. A parliamentary system is more democratic. But when you talk about a presidential system, it is more decisive, more compatible with order and discipline, which we might need at this time. So probably a mixture of the two, something like the French system.”

Foremost in his mind is how to disband the militias and coax the guns from young fighters. “We must find alternatives for these young people, and we have to rebuild the national army and police so these militias have no excuse for keeping their arms.”

That is going to be a tall order. Jobs have to be created quickly. “We have to revive the economy and get foreign companies to come back.” They will return, though, only when Libya enjoys stability and security—a Catch-22. And for Jibril and his Muslim Brother interlocutors, the clock is ticking.

Even with the slightly disappointing turnout—in their first post-dictatorship election last October, by comparison, more than 90 percent of Tunisians voted—Libya’s weekend elections give cause for hope. Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, the head of the European Union’s Election Assessment Team here, says turnout is less important. “Libyans believe the elections reflected the democratic will of the people.” He scores the elections as being highly successful. “This was a Libyan revolution, a Libyan election, and it will be a Libyan parliament.”