July 13, 2012
THE democratic ferment of the Arab Spring, it has become conventional to point out, has wilted, to be replaced by a new ascendancy of Islamist regimes. Except it hasn't. Tunisia and Egypt have elected Islamist governments, it is true, but they do not resemble each other and neither seems about to become a Tunisian or Egyptian clone of the Taliban. And in the most recent election in a newly democratised Arab nation, Libya, Islamists were decisively rejected by voters.
Libya's next government will not be formed by the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction Party but by the National Forces Alliance (NFA), a broad coalition of 55 parties led by Mahmoud Jibril, who chaired the National Transitional Council during the uprising against the Gaddafi regime. The lesson is not that Islamists do not wield considerable political influence in Libya: even Mr Jibril was careful to say that the NFA should not be seen as liberals in the Western sense of the term, but as ''a moderate Islamic movement''. Libya's poll is a reminder, however, that the Arab world is not a seamless cultural unity, and never has been. In the Middle East, as in the West or anywhere else, the democratic choices people make will reflect the characteristics of the particular societies that have shaped them.
In Libya's case, perhaps the chief explanation of the election result is the voters' recognition of how much of the social fabric had been shredded under Muammar Gaddafi's rule. Mr Jibril, a US-educated political scientist, is a national figure because of his leadership of the rebellion. But he is also a former member of the toppled regime, having directed economic reforms initiated by the dictator's son, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi. If anyone is capable of beginning the task of rebuilding Libya's shattered framework of government, it is probably Mr Jibril.
For democracy to survive in Libya, let alone flourish, that task cannot just be a matter of restoring public services and ensuring periodic free elections. The new government will also have to try to revive the institutions of civil society and a sense of national unity, which were all but destroyed during the four decades in which Gaddafi held power. The dictator relied on manipulating tribal alliances and exploiting old rivalries between eastern and western Libya - the rebellion began, and was always strongest, in the eastern province, Cyrenaica. Divisions among Libyans are still reflected in the existence of local militias that refuse to disarm. Mr Jibril's first, and perhaps most daunting, challenge will be to persuade them to do so.