Remarkably for a country that endured a civil war last year after a 42-year-dictatorship, Libya calmly and quietly went through a transition of power this week, from the National Transitional Council to an elected parliament called the General National Congress – a stark contrast to the tormented war in Syria.
The consequences of what has been called the Arab Spring show no consistent pattern. So far, Libya does not appear to be headed toward an Islamist government. The Congress has 200 members; 120 seats were reserved for independents. Of the 80 seats allocated to party lists, 39 were won by the National Forces Alliance, generally classified as liberal, and allied with a centrist party that won two seats. The party of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Justice and Construction Party, won 17.
The NFA and the JCP both claim that they have numerous de facto allies among the independents, but many of them may well genuinely represent local interests (and local power structures).
The Congress has the duties of electing an interim government and choosing a 60-member constituent assembly. After the constituent assembly drafts a constitution, there will be another parliamentary election. The Congress’s legislation and other decisions will require a two-thirds majority, a rule intended to encourage consensus, which might sometimes result in paralysis.
There are still patches of chaos in Libya. The armed forces have not been reconstituted, but militias no longer appear to be in control of streets in the country’s major cities. Policing is not effective, though there are officers to direct traffic, and shops and other small businesses operate much as if there were solid police forces providing security.
Libya is politically frail, but its modest successes offer cause for hope. It reminds us there is no inevitability to irreconcilable conflict, as in Syria, or to more or less sinister Islamism. At present, Libya is an encouraging result of a democratic movement.