Unlike what took place in other Arab countries, and in Egypt and Tunisia in particular, Libyan revolutionaries did not simply aim for regime change. Those who fought the regime also sought to put an end to the general "lack of a state" situation in Libya.
Political power in Libya, as in many Arab countries, was concentrated in the hands of one leader: Colonel Muammar Gadhafi. Gadhafi’s regime was but a caricature of a state, and the security apparatus stamped out the concept of institutions harder than any other dictatorship had. The Gadhafi regime also relieved any existing civil society institutions of any productive role by either nationalizing or banning them. Those that were nationalized were called the “people’s committees,” and their purpose was to help Gadhafi dominate the country’s political and civic space.
Libya shocked observers after voters elected the Alliance of National Forces (ANF) in the country’s first legislative elections in decades. The mere holding of elections, regardless of their outcome, is a qualitative step forward for a people that has not exercised its political rights in far too long.
The elections gained additional importance due to the fact that, contrary to everyone’s expectations, the majority of the voters did not choose to elect an Islamist candidate. Libyan voters were quick to learn from the experience of those other countries which had elected Islamists. Only a few months into their rule, Islamist forces started to send negative signals regarding their ability to build modern and civil states. In Libya, a modern state is an urgent need given that there has been no state to speak of for decades.
The Libyans who voted for Mahmoud Jibril and his ANF coalition might have decided that this party was more capable than the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Justice and Construction Party when it comes to state building. What’s more, women and other social segments were wary of the Muslim Brotherhood’s party.
The forces that have come to power in Libya are not liberal, even if the concept of liberalism is utilized on a daily basis in Arab political essays. Jibril never presented himself as a liberal in the first place. The ANF is an umbrella for nationalist and modernist forces, and it convinced voters with its platform, which focused on serving ordinary citizens through development. They took note of the prevailing mood of moderate Libyans, who hate extremism. The ANF benefited from Jibril’s charisma in its quest to attract voters.
The progress made by the ANF in Libya’s elections does not only send a message to those inside the country, but rather to those in other Arab countries. Nationalist and civic movements were wrong to run in the elections when they were so divided, as happened in Egypt, Tunisia and in other countries. They should have been united in order to put forth a single presidential candidate. Divided, they failed to achieve good results, and Libya is a worthy lesson for these movements.