In clear contrast to electoral tendencies in other “Arab Spring” countries, relatively liberal parties in Libya seem to have decisively crushed their Islamist rivals in last Saturday’s parliamentary poll. The development came as a surprise to many. Here are some reasons which might explain the apparent anti-Islamic trend in a country which last year rose up to depose strongman Moammar Gadhafi and rid itself from the legacy of 40 years of his despotic rule.
1) The Gadhafi effect
There is no doubt that Moammar Gadhafi was a dictator, however, when it came to Islam, he was one of only a few Muslim leaders in disagreement with some traditional Islamist thoughts and beliefs.
For example, Gadhafi welcomed some interpretations of the Quran that rejected the Sunna part of Islam. The latter represents the non-Quranic statements of the Islamic prophet Mohamed that are collected in the so-called Hadith books and considered fundamental to a traditional Islamist way of thinking.
Additionally, Gadhafi suggested changes in the Quran itself. For example, he promoted eliminating the word “say” from the Quranic verse “Say, the Lord is one” (Quran Sura Al-Ikhlas N0:112). Some consider this seemingly insignificant change as punishable by death under Sharia law.
It seems that having had a leader who treated religious issues with this level of flexibility helped promote a less radical way of thinking in society, which seems to have ultimately revealed itself in the victory of liberal voices versus Islamist ones in the recent elections in Libya.
2) The Egypt effect
It is likely that the behavior and performance of Islamists in post-revolution Egypt – which have been viewed by many as disgraceful and a prime reason for their ultimate drop in popularity – has made many Libyans think twice whether to vote in support of Islamic parties.
Social media, the Internet in general, and satellite TV helped spread the negative image of Egyptian Islamists to several Arab countries, including Libya.
3) The Polygamy factor
Unlike many political Islamists who usually avoid taking a clear public stance on sensitive issues such as polygamy, the head of Libya’s initial interim government, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, did not shy away from openly endorsing a return to the practice in the run-up to the election. This position out in the open could have prompted many women to vote for less conservative candidates so to avoid becoming victims of the practice, if it is reintroduced.
4) Less Saudi influence
Compared to Egyptians, millions of whom have lived and worked in Saudia Arabia (being exposed to its local strictly Sharia-compliant brand of Islam, Wahhabism), Libyans, with better economic conditions, stayed home where they were largely free of outside influences, including exposure to conservative forms of Islam. This factor, too, could have contributed to liberals coming out ahead in the vote in Libya.
Additionally, while many Egyptians during the Islamic revival that started in late 1970s were impressed with the wealth of Saudi Arabia and thus wanted to follow Sharia law thinking that it brought wealth and prosperity, Libyans – with their own economic resources were less likely to be impressed with the Saudi model.
5) The Palestinian factor
The Palestinian issue has been used in the Egyptian revolution to motivate people to vote for Islamists as they, it was argued, would better represent Palestinian interests. As a case in point, Al-Quradawy, a well-known and influential Islamic scholar, led a prayer in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during last year’s uprising leading a crowd in chanting: “To Jerusalem we are going in millions to die as martyrs.”
In addition, prominent Egyptian cleric Sheik Safwat Hejazi, during recent presidential elections in Egypt, used the Palestinian cause to entice people to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi.
It seems that the Palestinian factor was not pivotal for Libyans. The reason behind this is probably – unlike in the case of Egypt – the absence of a history of direct military confrontations with Israel.
Also, Gadhafi held an unusual position on the Palestinian cause, holding Palestinians directly responsible for their lack of a country and mockingly remarking that they should establish a country called “Isra-teen” (the suffix of the term, which would represent the Palestinians, equates them in Arabic to “mud”).
Consequently, Islamists in Libya proved unable to use the Palestinian cause as effectively as their fellow Egyptians to inspire people to vote in favor of Islamists.
6) The foreign intervention factor
It was U.S.-led multi-national forces – not Islamic organizations – that helped the Libyan people remove Gadhafi and end their humiliating suffering. Gadhafi soldiers were known to rape Libyan women in front of their husbands. The notion that mostly Western countries, not their Islamic counterparts, came to the aid of Libyans, could have been another factor in the meager showing of Islamists in the Libyan vote.
While it is impossible to pinpoint with any degree of certainty which of the above factors or combinations thereof contributed to liberals prevailing over Islamists in recent parliamentary elections in Libya, one should not discount or underestimate the Islamic forces, some of them radical, which do exist in the county.
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Dr. Tawfik Hamid is an Islamic thinker and reformer, and one-time Islamic extremist from Egypt. He is currently a Senior Fellow and Chair for the Study of Islamic Radicalism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Arlington, Virginia.