Nijad Sharfeddin was the face of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya’s historic parliamentary elections. Featured prominently on campaign posters in her hijab and glasses, sans makeup, she was the image of both modernity in Arab politics and conservative Islamic values.
But voters suspicious of the Brotherhood, which has no real history in Libya, often asked her to name a Libyan on her ticket whom they would have heard of. She couldn’t. Those suspicions and a lack of an identity in the Libyan street were some of the many factors that led to the Brotherhood slate’s distant second-place finish in Saturday’s vote, experts and everyday Libyans said.
The official election results may not be announced until next week, but the Brotherhood is already absorbing its biggest loss of the Arab Spring, having earned, according to projections, as little as 3 percent of the vote in some cities. While Brotherhood members lead in Tunisia and Egypt, and have made a strong showing in Yemen, Libya brought the electoral momentum of the world’s largest Islamic party to a screeching halt.
Mahmoud Jibril – former Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi’s foreign minister and the head of the interim government after the Gadhafi state collapsed last fall – already has taken a commanding lead even as election workers continue to count ballots. Jibril, a former professor at the University of Pittsburgh who is generally popular despite his former ties to Gadhafi, led a pro-Western coalition called the National Forces Alliance.
The Brotherhood’s setback in Libya may not reverberate in the region, given the North African nation’s small population and isolation from the heart of the Middle East. But it appeared to be a consequence of the Gadhafi regime’s longstanding suppression of Islamists, which made Libyans wary of them. In interviews, many Libyans said they don’t need a party to tell them how to incorporate Islam into their state – made up almost entirely of members of the Maliki school of Sunni Muslims – and said that the Brotherhood is enigmatic, untrustworthy and didn’t take part in the revolution that overthrew Gadhafi.
Brotherhood members said that the short, 18-day campaign didn’t give them enough time to overcome 40-plus years of demagogy by Gadhafi, and that voters appeared to be less interested in the implementation of Islamic Shariah law – one of the party’s key planks – than in candidates who could solve the nation’s massive economic and security problems. Jibril already has promised to implement Shariah law as part of a nationalist platform.
“A revolution alone does not change minds,” said Alamin Belhaj, the executive officer of the Justice and Construction Party, the largest slate to represent Brotherhood candidates in Saturday’s election.
The longstanding organization and grassroots messaging effort that defines the Brotherhood in the rest of the Arab world is notably absent here.
“I don’t know the Brotherhood politics but I know Jibril’s. We don’t need someone telling us how to practice Islam,” explained Walid Omar Regabi, 26, a government worker, while sitting outside a mosque where Jibril campaign posters hung inside. “We didn’t see the Brotherhood during the revolution.”
One Libyan, while smoking a water pipe in Tripoli’s old city, near the Roman-built arch that defines the city landscape, put it more bluntly: “We are smarter than the Tunisians and Egyptians.”
There were exceptions. In the western city of Misrata, which saw some of the heaviest fighting last year, the Brotherhood came in a close second place, according to election results released so far.
Even though most people in this clan-based society see themselves as Muslims, not Libyans, Libyans more than people in other Arab nations have historically been suspicious of religious-based politics, said Dirk Vandewalle, a Dartmouth College professor who specializes in Libya. The result: More organization and time on the ground may not be enough for the Brotherhood to improve its standing in Libyan politics.
In the new government, “what we will see is a lot of Islamist sensibility. But I think it will be much more of a nationalist movement here,” Vandewalle said in an interview in Tripoli.
In a nation of only 2.8 million registered voters, many said they turned to the one candidate they recognized, not religious-based politics. The complex makeup of the Parliament was designed to stop any one party from dominating: Voters chose among individual candidates for 120 seats and among parties for the remaining 80 seats.
With more than 3,700 candidates and slates to choose from, many often knew their pick through work, neighborhood associates, tribal associations or mutual friends.
Yet many of those running as Brotherhood candidates had spent decades in exile during Gadhafi’s rule. Sharfeddin and her husband, longstanding Brotherhood members, moved to Canada 30 years ago before returning in 2011 as the uprising began, not enough time to rebuild personal ties. Belhaj joined the Brotherhood in 1981 in the United States, while working on a degree in telecommunications engineering, only returning to Libya last year.
“The personality of the candidate is the most important thing,” Belhaj said in his office Tuesday, where English-language books titled “Winning Elections” and “The Campaign Manager” sat on his desk.
Regardless, it was a surprising outcome for the Brotherhood, which won 51 percent of the vote in local council elections held two months ago in about a half-dozen cities. But Jibril’s slate was not running then and there were no council races in the capital, Tripoli.
Belhaj contended that when voters have a chance to meet the candidates – as they did in the council races – the Brotherhood can win.
Vandewalle disagreed. “What we saw earlier this year was a bit of an aberration,” he said.
Belhaj insists that the national outcome was expected. He noted that the Brotherhood had been active in Tunisia since 1985 and was founded in Egypt in 1928. With only a few months since it could operate freely here, Libya’s Brotherhood did not have enough time to spread its message nationally.
“Our problem is that we have not touched the hearts and minds of the people,” Belhaj said. “But in the long run, we will educate them.”
Many Libyans reject such thinking, insisting they are more learned than the Brotherhood.
“We are centrists. We don’t need the Brotherhood,” said Tariq Ali, 32, a taxi driver, after finishing his midday prayers at a Tripoli mosque.
The Brotherhood’s low popularity was apparent even before the vote. Rather than name a slate exclusively of its members, the Brotherhood candidates split themselves between Belhaj’s party and the al Watan party. Belhaj said that the Brotherhood already was considering allying with other parties that lost to Jibril’s coalition, and that he expects his slate to do better in the next elections, scheduled roughly 18 months from now.
Sharfeddin was equally optimistic.
“It is not the end of us,” Sharfeddin said. “It is the beginning.”