In an important political step forward, Libyans went to the polls this weekend to vote for members of a new National Assembly. Despite no modern history of nationwide voting (the country last voted in 1965 in a party-less election) and decades of dictatorship under Muammar al-Qaddafi, Libya's election went remarkably smoothly. Voter turnout was high at around 65 percent. Carter Center observers, among others, praised the voting process, and President Obama issued a statement congratulating Libyans on the election.
So far, early reports suggest that former interim prime minister Mahmoud Jibril's National Forces Alliance is in the lead; final election results should become available later in the week. Jibril's party is an alliance of numerous groups and is often characterized as being relatively liberal, secular, and pro-business. If the National Forces Alliance wins a majority, it would mark a departure from the experience of neighboring Tunisia and Egypt where Islamists have dominated recent elections. Jibril's coalition was pitted against Islamist groups, including the party affiliated with Libya's Muslim Brotherhood, and many thought that Libya's elections would also deliver a victory to the Islamists.
However, as I wrote last week, identity issues largely define Libyan politics--and in an election involving a dizzying array of parties and well over 3,000 candidates, Jibril is a well-known leader with solid revolutionary credentials. Tribal affiliations are important in Libya, and Jibril belongs to Libya's most populous tribe. Some speculate that women in particular supported his coalition. Jibril, a U.S.-educated Qaddafi-era official who taught at the University of Pittsburgh, has also downplayed his own and his coalition's perceived secularism and liberalism, so Libyans' support for Jibril does not necessarily signal their rejection of political Islam. Moreover, since the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood could not operate openly under the former Qaddafi government, it does not have the same presence and reach as it does in Egypt.
On the heels of this weekend's successful elections, more nationwide voting is set for Libyans. Although the National Assembly was originally tasked with appointing a group to write the country's constitution, citizens will now vote directly for this committee. This change comes after protests in the eastern region of the country over the allocation of seats in the National Assembly. Libyans have reason to feel proud of their first national election after Qaddafi. Although this is just a first step in a long process of building new political and civic institutions, this election is an important early milestone.