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Who are Libya's liberals?

Text by Catherine NORRIS TRENT

Latest update : 2012-07-11

Libya's election commission has been cautiously announcing a trickle of partial results, but the hoardes of foreign journalists gathered in Tripoli are on stand-by, itching to draw conclusions and read patterns into Saturday's historic vote.
So far, headlines conclude that Libyan "liberals" are in poll position. But is that an accurate reading?

On the basis of partial vote counts and election monitoring by political parties, the wind does seem to be blowing in favour of the National Forces Alliance. Its figurehead is the former NTC Prime minister Mahmoud Jibril, a prominent defector to anti-Gaddafi ranks who helped running Libya's rebel government for seven months. An economist, Jibril previously lived in the United States and speaks impeccable English. This, coupled to the fact that his alliance was running against overtly Islamist parties, has earned the NFA a reputation as liberals, even secularists.

But high-up NFA figures are anxious to dismiss these readings. The day after the election, Jibril delivered a speech calling for dialogue with all political parties, including Islamists. His frustration at the media's shorthand was clear: "Some channels started referring to the National Forces Alliance as liberals – that's not true. It is composed of different political formations." The NFA is indeed a loose grouping of several dozen small parties and organisations. Channelling their common beliefs may prove a challenge in this new and fast-developing political landscape.

Hamuda Siala, Jibril's spokesman, went even further. "The concepts of 'liberal' and 'secular' simply don't exist in Libyan society", he told my France 24 colleagues and me, adding: "We are not liberals, we're moderates". Siala confirmed to us that Jibril's alliance had been in negotiations with several other political parties for weeks even before this landmark election, and hoped to work with them on re-drafting Libya's constitution.

How liberal is Mahmoud Jibril's "liberal" coalition?

So how moderate will the new Libya look in a year's time, with its new legal framework (supposedly) in place? Unlike some Islamist tendancies, the NFA doesn't believe the country should be run entirely by Sharia law, but does hold that Sharia should be "the main inspiration for legislation". This may sound alarming to some Western ears, but it probably wouldn't change much in terms of day-to-day life in a socially conservative and ovewhelmingly Islamic Libya. Moreover, it could actually set a limit to the bounds of Islamic law, preventing it from expanding to all aspects of the life. The NFA have pledged, if they do get a mandate, to run the country as a "civil democratic" state, which respects minority groups, non-Muslims and foreigners.

It's possible of course that the NFA are eager to play down the "liberal" label in order not to scare-off devout Libyans who fear an erosion of Islamic morals in the post-revolutionary turmoil. But it's also true that their platform of moderate, Islam-friendly, unifying politics seems to have struck a chord with voters. Nearly all those we've spoken to on the streets of Tripoli in the past week have told us they're simply not interested in seeing a hardening of social codes.

Mohammed, a 27-year old shop worker in the neighbourhood of Abu Slim, said he didn't want politicians or parties to meddle in religious affairs: "We don't need them to make a new form of Islam for Libya". A devout muslim who's grown a long beard since last year's revolution (which would have a been a dangeroulsy subversive act under Gaddafi), Mohammed believes that the way he practices and applies his faith has nothing to do with the government. This weariness of overbearing, overreaching leadership, together with hope in Jibril's capacities, seem to be major factors pushing Libya's moderates forwards.

Date created : 2012-07-11