Pro-Western official leading in Libya elections

Mahmoud Jibril, head of the National Forces Alliance, wiped his brow during a news conference at his party's headquarters in Tripoli Sunday.
Zohra Bensemra/REUTERS
Mahmoud Jibril, head of the National Forces Alliance, wiped his brow during a news conference at his party's headquarters in Tripoli Sunday.

BENGHAZI, Libya — A coalition led by a Western-educated political scientist appeared on Sunday to be beating Islamist parties in Libya’s first election in the post-Gadhafi era, standing apart from an overwhelming Islamist wave sweeping across neighboring Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings.

The preliminary results, characterized by independent monitors and party representatives who witnessed the vote counting for a new national assembly, may reflect the relative novelty of political debate here as well as the reputation and tribal connections of the coalition’s founder, Mahmoud Jibril. He is a member of Libya’s most populous tribe, the Warfalla, as well as the former interim prime minister who helped lead the de facto rebel government in Benghazi.

But Jibril and his coalition also stood out from other opponents of Islamists around the region because they did not hurl accusations of extremism against those who called for Islamic law. Like the Islamists and almost every other major faction here, Jibril’s coalition pledged to make Islamic law a main source of legislation, though not the only one.


Ideological lines remained fuzzy, and many voters acknowledged plans to let tribal or family ties guide their vote. But the Islamists sought to portray Jibril’s coalition as ‘‘liberal’’ or ‘‘secular’’ — and some who stood with him acknowledged privately that for them those terms were perfectly apt. But Jibril himself echoed a frequent refrain of Libyan voters unsure what to make of re-emergent groups like the Muslim Brotherhood: ‘‘Do they think they are more Muslim than we are?’’

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A former professor of political science who earned his doctoral degree and then taught at the University of Pittsburgh, Jibril said in a recent interview on Libyan television that his neighbors in either the United States or Libya would describe him as someone who ‘‘goes to the mosque for Friday prayers, and we see that he prays.’’

‘’The Libyan people don’t need either liberalism or secularism, or pretenses in the name of Islam because Islam, this great religion, cannot be used for political purposes. Islam is much bigger than that,’’ he said.

The apparent success of his party over the Muslim Brotherhood’s bloc now makes Jibril perhaps the most important voice in the next stage of Libya’s political transition after the fall of Moammar Gadhafi. That phase is expected to include the drafting of a new constitution.

Although his previous interim role barred him from personally seeking office in the planned national congress, his name appeared larger than that of his party or its candidates on its campaign posters. And his victory would complete a comeback after he was pushed from office after the capture and killing of Gadhafi by pressure from rebels who said Jibril had focused too much on courting Western support and neglected domestic needs in the rebel-controlled territory.


Several estimates say that in the portion of a planned national assembly decided by a contest between parties, Jibril’s coalition, the National Forces Alliance, had won as much as 80 percent of the vote in the Western region around Tripoli and more than 60 percent of the vote in the Eastern region around Benghazi. Jibril’s Warfalla tribe, which accounts for roughly a million of Libya’s 6 million inhabitants, has its heaviest presence in both of those critical regions.

The party that appeared to be running second, the bloc established by the Muslim Brotherhood, appeared to receive only about 20 percent or less in both regions, parties and monitors said, indicating a trend likely to carry over into the competition between individual candidates as well. Another loosely Islamic party founded by Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a former leader of an armed Islamist insurgency here who became the head of Tripoli’s military council, also fell short. It was expected to be a major competitor but appeared to end up with even less support than the Brotherhood’s party.

More official preliminary results are expected on Monday night, with final results expected perhaps as soon as the end of the week.

The initial results came a day after election-related violence claimed the lives of at least two people and armed assaults on polling places forced the closure of several of them in the eastern coastal region. But 94 percent of polling places had opened, the interim government said Saturday, with turnout at over 60 percent.

Among Jibril’s most vocal opponents were the militia leaders from the coastal city of Misrata, who emerged as a powerful force in the interim government. Many Libyans also note that the Misrata tribe has a generations-old rivalry with Jibril’s Warfalla tribe, who killed a Misratan hero the pre-World War II fight against an Italian occupation.


Reports from Misrata on Sunday indicated that it was one of the few major cities to reject Jibril’s party. Instead, early reports indicated that Misrata had favored a new party founded by Abdurrahman Sewehli, a prominent descendant of that slain hero. Islamists did not appear to dominate there either.

Of 200 seats in the planned national assembly, about 80 were allocated to a competition between party lists, mainly in the major cities. The other 120 seats will be decided by races between individual candidates. Given the cursory nature of the campaign debate, local prominence or tribal connections is expected to play a more decisive role than ideology or party affiliation in deciding those seats.

But in interviews in several parts of the country in recent days, voters were far more likely to say they planned to vote for Jibril than to name any other party or candidate.

Perhaps most tellingly, Jibril’s coalition dominated the voting even in the area of the eastern coast around Darnah that is considered a stronghold of Libyan Islamist politics, said Abdel Hakim el Hasadi, another former Islamist fighter who is now a leading politician there.

In an interview Sunday, el Hasadi praised Jibril for reaching out to Islamists as well as other interests. El Hasadi said Jibril had called just two days before the vote, and on Sunday el Hasadi said he was planning a visit to Tripoli to discuss plans to work together.

Though he is not seen as a charismatic national leader, Jibril, a balding and portly man with a professorial style, has been a divisive figure.

He left his job as interim prime minister under a cloud. In addition to criticism that he failed to do enough for average Libyans, he was criticized for spending too much of his life in the United States and too much of the fight against Gadhafi jetting around foreign capitals.

Some also faulted him for his work before the uprising as the director of planning in Gadhafi government. Jibril was a proponent of economic liberalization and considered an ally of Gadhafi’s son, Seif al-Islam. But he quit the Gadhafi government to form the self-appointed National Transitional Council as soon as the insurrection began, and his liberal image and political sophistication was vital to securing the Western military support that ultimately enabled the rebels to unseat Gadhafi.