Commentary Magazine


Topic: Mahmoud Jibril

Arab World Now Nation-Building Challenge

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.

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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.

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U.S. Intervention Helps Shape Mideast

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.

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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.

There is a lesson here worth keeping in mind with regard to Syria, where numerous factions are jostling for influence after the downfall of Bashar al-Assad. The more actively the U.S. gets involved in toppling the tyrant, the more influence we–as opposed to the Saudis or Qataris–will have in determining Syria’s future. So too in Egypt we have an opportunity to back liberal parties and help them to get better organized so the Egyptian people will not face the same dismal choice between the Brotherhood and the army. This is an opportunity we dare not miss.

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