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.
This appears to be the heyday of American-educated professors in the Middle East. Mohammed Morsi, an engineering Ph.D. from the University of Southern California, is the new president of Egypt. Mahmoud Jibril, a political science Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh, is the likely new leader of Libya. But there the comparisons end. For while Morsi is an Islamist who is closely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, Jibril is a liberal secularist who ran in opposition to the Brotherhood. His coalition’s triumph in Libya’s weekend election shows that there is nothing inevitable about an Islamist takeover in the Arab world’s emerging democracies.
It also shows that American intervention can help to shape the region for the better. Jibril’s credibility comes not only from his affiliation in the populous Warfalla tribe but also from his American background (free of the taint of cooperation with the previous regime) and his role as head of the National Transitional Council which, with Western support, led the fight against Qaddafi. Many in the West fear that any Western support will be the kiss of death for Arab moderates who will be denounced as Western lackeys by their own people. Not in Libya. The very fact that the U.S. and its allies got actively involved allowed them to boost a moderate leader despite Libya’s turbulent politics.