Will Libya be an Arab Spring Success Story?

In Benghazi, Libyans celebrated after the elections. Abdullah Doma / AFP-Getty Images

When the initial results of Libya’s first free elections started coming in earlier this month, Western policymakers began to breathe a little easier. Elections in Tunisia and Egypt have been triumphs for religious parties taking advantage of the Arab Spring’s uncertainties to push their version of Allah’s verities. But in Libya, even though fundamentalists abound, their political parties faltered.

Negotiations to form a new government will most likely drag on under the country’s improvised parliamentary system, but the dominant party coalition is clearly that of Mahmoud Jibril, 60, a former economy minister under Muammar Gaddafi and former prime minister under the transitional council that replaced the dictator. Jibril also used to be a professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh. He shuns any talk of ideology, which he calls “some sort of prison.” He prefers to talk about “creativity” and “risk-taking.” His credentials are the kind that make Western governments comfortable, if not downright giddy.

But the best news for the Libyans, at least in the short term, hasn’t come from the ballot counting by the electoral commission so much as the bean counting of the International Monetary Fund. A few days after the vote, the IMF issued a report estimating that Libya’s GDP (which crashed by 60 percent during the fighting last year) will, in a phenomenal rebound, grow by more than 116 percent this year, then settle down to growth of more than 13 percent over the following two years. In Tunisia and Egypt, the economies are essentially stagnant, with little hope of desperately needed growth any time soon.

The basic difference, of course, is that Libya has a relatively small population (about 6.7 million) with a large amount of oil (about 47 billion barrels of proven reserves). And it’s already pumping crude at almost the same rate as before the revolution. So there’s quite a substantial cushion protecting Libyans from bad politics—even if voters make mistakes at the ballot box and their representatives squander their mandates in the Parliament.

The big question for the long term, however, is whether all that oil wealth will be a source of unity for the country, or a force that inspires greedy competition among tribal and regional interests. On that score, there is plenty of cause for concern. At least since the breakups of Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union 20 years ago, it has been obvious that when you take the lid off a dictatorship, cobbled-together states that tyrants held together by force tend to shatter violently. That nearly happened in Iraq. It may yet happen in Syria.

In Libya, the presence of heavily armed militias who refuse to surrender their weapons to the central government raises the constant threat that feuds will turn into pitched battles, and battles will open the way to civil war. One part of the solution is to build the national army and police. The other, as Jibril knows, is to bring down an unemployment rate that’s well over 20 percent. The problem of poverty is not as great in Libya as it is among its neighbors, but the problem of idleness and frustration can be as great there as anywhere.

Jibril, wisely, has focused his message on national unity, or, more pointedly, on nationalism and unification. His coalition party, tellingly, is called the National Forces Alliance. And one of the factors undermining the Muslim Brotherhood in the elections apparently was the widespread feeling in Libya that the Brothers’ ideology and organization was an import from Egypt. “This was a Libyan revolution, a Libyan election, and it will be a Libyan Parliament,” Jibril told Newsweek. Thus far, it looks as if the future will be uniquely Libyan as well.

With Jamie Dettmer

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