It is certainly good news, as I have previously noted, that Mahmoud Jibril’s secular National Forces Alliance is the big winner in the recent Libyan legislative election–better news certainly than the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood has dominated Egypt’s elections or that the more moderate Islamist party Ennahda has taken taken power in Tunisia. It suggests that free elections in the Middle East need not be synonymous with an Islamist takeover; indeed, Libyan voters seemed to recoil from the Islamists’ message that they were somehow better Muslims than anyone else.
But we must not lose sight of the big picture: We are talking about one election only in each country. No matter which path they set down–Islamist or secular–their ultimate destination remains very much unknown. Much will be determined by the success or failure of the new governments, of whatever ideological stripe, in addressing the basic pocketbook issues that people everywhere care about.
That is an especially serious challenge in Egypt, a giant country (population 83 million) whose economy is a government-dominated basket case. Libya, by contrast, is much smaller (population 6.7 million) and much richer because of its oil deposits. (Libya’s GDP per capita is more than $14,000 when calculated for purchasing power parity; Egypt’s is only $6,500.) Thus, on the face of it, Jibril has a better chance of success than Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi. But Jibril will also have his work cut out for him–after all, he was interim prime minister last year and had to step down because he was not having much success in disarming militias, reestablishing order, or helping Libya recover from the conflict that toppled Qaddafi.
Ultimately–unless one of the recent election winners installs a dictatorship, which seems unlikely in the near future–the newly formed Arab governments will be judged on performance, not on election rhetoric or airy promises. And that’s a good thing. But it is also a severe challenge because of the ramshackle nature of the state across the Arab world: for generations, the region has been ruled by autocrats who were only good at one thing–repressing dissent–and even in that area they are looking increasingly incompetent.
The Arab world now presents a giant nation-building challenge. It cries out for an Ataturk, Adenauer, Bismarck, Cavour, Lee Kuan Yew, or Washington–a great leader who can forge a strong state out of unpromising materials. The U.S. and other outside powers can play a role in helping these new state-builders, but only a small one; ultimately, it is up to them.