Monday, July 23, 2012

Libya's New Politicians Resist Labels

Libyans celebrate election day on Omar Mukthar Avenue in downtown Tripoli, Libya on July, 7, 2012.

Tripoli, Libya

Sitting in his garden in the Tripoli suburb of Ain Zara five days after the July, 7 elections, surrounded by a circle of friends and family chatting quietly, Abdelnasser Siklani watched his TV screen as Libya’s Higher National Election Commission announced results. Siklani, an independent candidate for the new General National Congress, had just heard the news that he had won a seat, but was waiting to hear it confirmed on televised broadcast.

Suddenly the results for the district, which has two seats in the new congress, appeared on screen. Siklani rushed up to the screen and held his finger over his name. He had indeed come in second place, ahead of the next candidate by less than a hundred votes.

For Siklani, a businessman, this foray into politics is totally new.

“This is a special feeling you can’t get in business. This dream was always inside me, but now I can transfer my feelings and love of Libya through a program,” he says.

In the new Congress, only 80 out of 200 seats were reserved for political parties, with the rest left to individual candidates. This has made determining the political leaning of the new body difficult to identify, particularly in a country where there were no politics for 42 years under the rule of former dictator Moammer Gadhafi. While the non-Islamist National Forces Alliance, or NFA, of former interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, has performed exceedingly well in these elections, other parties have said that they intend to tip the balance by attracting independent congressmen to their cause.

According to Siklani, he has already been contacted by five, different political parties seeking his support, with one phone call coming only minutes after his victory.

“All parties are calling me to get me to join, but I will remain independent,” he says.

Siklani says he is skeptical of parties that were formed too quickly.

“I don’t rely on theories or ideas. When I see something in practice that works, I will go to that,” he says.

Siklani says his skepticism of the political parties comes from the lessons he learned when he spent 7 years in Gadhafi’s Abu Slim prison. Siklani was jailed twice for plotting to assassinate Moammer Gadhafi. The first time came, in 1980, when he was a pilot stationed at an airbase in Sirte. Noticing that Gadhafi only traveled with a dozen-car escort in this Gadhafi-friendly town, rather than the normal 100 in Tripoli, he hatched a plan with one co-conspirator. Siklani’s confidante let the plan slip to a third party. Siklani was arrested, but managed to convince the jailers that his partner was simply trying to climb up the ladder of success by inventing traitors.

The second time Siklani plotted to kill Gadhafi was in 1982 in Benghazi, and this time he was caught.

Siklani’s brother, Abdelrazek, celebrating tonight in Ain Zara, recounts looking for his jailed brother for three years.

I lied about my age so I could get a license and drove house to house around Tripoli to try to get information and clearance [to see Abdelnasser],” he says, noting that the family had no idea whether he was alive or not.

Abdelrazek and his mother were finally granted permission to see Abdelnasser in prison in 1985.

“I think the guys sitting around him tortured him. He couldn’t even walk, his legs were blue,” Abdelrazek says.

“Your mom had to watch it,” Abdelnasser interrupts, pointing out that he had to pretend he was in better condition than he actually was so as not to worry his mother.

The Siklani story, like thousands of others in this city, gives a clue as to how external political influences, like Islamism, have failed to mold the political landscape of this fiercely independent country.

“We learned enough from Gadhafi that no one will cheat us in the future, even the Libyan parties,” he says.

This attitude may help to explain how the NFA, which has thus far shirked ideological labels, managed to secure a sweeping victory. Following the elections, NFA head Jibril gave a press conference specifically to reject the labels ascribed to his coalition by the media.

“Some media channels, Arab and non-Arab, started referring to the National Forces Alliance as liberal and secular. That’s not true. This alliance is open and it is composed of all political mixtures of Libyans,” he said. “This alliance is an alliance of the national forces. It has no relationship to any ideology.”

He also went on to reject the labels of ‘leftist,’ and ‘Islamist.’

According to the NFA’s General Secretary, Doctor Faisal Krekshi, the NFA learned well the lessons of Tunisia and Egypt. He noted that in Tunisia’s first democratic elections in October of last year, the Islamist Ennahda party won less of the vote-total than all the non-Islamist parties combined, but took power because the others remained divided. Learning from that experience, Krekshi says that Jibril toured 30 cities in November and December, talking with local political groups and non-governmental organizations to build the NFA’s current 55-party coalition.

Beyond grassroots coalition building, Krekshi says the NFA has beaten Islamists by taking debate to a higher level.

“We should provide for the basic needs of people, then we can talk about politics. We feel that it is more important to build the future principles of Libya rather than debate about secular or Muslims or stupidity like that,” he says. “We never go into a level where debate is so cheap. We prefer that debate will be about what you can offer and provide as a program, schedule, timetable and tools. But debating that you are Muslims, non-Muslims; you are secular, they are not secular; you drink, you don’t drink; you pray, you don’t pray – that’s not the way to build a country.”

More than that, Krekshi says that talking about religion as a political matter, in a country where nearly everyone is Muslim, is moot.

“This is a 100% Muslim country. You cannot speak about secularism. It’s like speaking about secularism inside the Vatican. That’s crazy,” he says.

The NFA has instead put forward basic guidelines for fixing Libya’s security challenges and preempting calls for federalism by advocating a policy of decentralization. Siklani, who says he is similarly opposed to ideological debates for now, says his first priority as a newly elected official is to solve Libya’s fragmented security apparatus.

“We cannot talk about politics while people have no electricity, have no clean water, when health services are not provided, when you have no laws, or telecommunications. Those are essential needs for your people. You should provide, and then you can talk about politics,” Krekshi says.

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