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A Triumph for Democracy in Libya

Ann Marlowe

I was surprised and touched to receive holiday greetings from Libyan friends around the Fourth of July. Mohamed Hilal El Senussi, a grandnephew of Libya’s first and last king, emailed: “I would like to extend to you and your family my very best wishes. May God bless America.” His sentiment was clear: Libyans love free Libya as much as we love America.

Most Libyans admire America and our heritage of liberty. It helps that the U.S. government—unlike Britain’s or Italy’s or France’s—never cozied up to Gadhafi. And this Fourth of July held a special resonance for Libyans: They took to the polls on July 7 in the first free multiparty elections since a vote in 1952 that was restricted to men and cast without secret ballots.

Several of my acquaintances were among the 4,000 candidates for the 200-seat General National Congress, which is to form a ministerial government to replace the Transitional National Council. One independent who lost, archeologist Shawki Moammar, still sounded thrilled as he told me on the evening of July 8 that the National Forces Alliance led by Mahmoud Jibril was leading.

This coalition is not liberal or secular in the Western sense, but it supports a civil state and is opposed to the values of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party. Mr. Moammar said, “Now I am not scared for the Libyan people. We are not like Egypt and Tunisia. I am very happy to see democracy for the first time in Libya.”

Libyans distrusted the Brotherhood for a few reasons, including the feeling that it had too much foreign money to spend. And precisely because Islam imbues their worldview, Libyans feel the faith is too precious to be legislated. A winning candidate, Amina Megheirbi, the second-ranked of 11 candidates on the Alliance list in Benghazi, is a devout Muslim. But the hijab-wearing, U.S.-educated founder of one of the country’s biggest civil society organizations is a firm advocate of women’s full participation in society.

Libyans were jubilant because 1,453 out of 1,554 polling centers opened. They were proud that voting in the western part of the country proceeded peacefully. The bad news is that 101 centers in the east closed, and a couple of election workers were killed.

Tensions have grown between the eastern part of the country, Cyrenaica, where the revolution began on Feb. 17, 2011, and the more recently liberated Tripolitanian region. Some Cyrenaicans protested the election, claiming that the number of seats allotted to their region did not reflect their population. They organized an oil export slowdown last week.

Some say that the separatist movement in the east is fueled by Gadhafi’s henchmen, who want a fragmented Libya they can continue to dominate. But it is also true that Cyrenaica and Tripolitania have been distinct cultural regions for some 2,000 years. They’re as far apart as Paris and Rome, or about 700 miles. While Americans have been quick to speak of “tribalism,” it’s more useful to see Libya as a collection of multi-tribal city-states. “We need dialogue,” says Ms. Megheirbi.

There’s also been a Chicken Little attitude toward the security situation in Libya—some of it fomented by those trying to sell private security services to foreigners operating there. While armed city militias are rampant, the actual amount of violence pales compared to that in any midsize American city. The upside of a small, closely knit society still alive to the concept of honor is that by and large people police themselves. In Benghazi on election day, ordinary people formed human shields to protect the polling stations.

As this suggests, Libyans have an American-style “do-it-yourself” spirit, the same spirit that led them to form hundreds of civil society associations during their revolution, and to keep the liberated portions of the country supplied with food, power, mobile phone service and security in the absence of a formal government.

Libya was home to the Arab world’s first democracy, the “Republic of Tripolitania,” proclaimed in 1918 in the same Nafusa mountains that sheltered the revolutionaries in 2011. Something in Libyans is congenial to democracy, and most Americans who visit Libya—like Sen. John McCain, who visited again to observe the elections—recognize in Libyans a kindred spirit.

Libyans don’t want or need American aid money, or our military, though they could use some American expertise. What they really want is our respect, as equals, from one people who freed themselves to another. So let us welcome Libya to the company of free nations. Like our nation in its infancy, they have a republic, if they can keep it.

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