Too Early to Call Libya Election a Setback for Muslim Brotherhood

Though Islamists lost, winning coalition is "starting from scratch" as it prepares to take power.

A Libyan woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Tripoli.

As details of initial election results were released in Tripoli on Monday, social media and news reports were quick to declare that the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood has suffered a major setback. But one expert says it's too soon to know just how different the winning coalition will prove.

People across the world took to Twitter to praise Libyan voters for handing power to a coalition party that is expected to be more moderate than the Muslim Brotherhood.

But Isobel Coleman, a Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow, cautions against painting the election outcome as a big loss for the Brotherhood, which has clashed in the past with the United States.

"Libya is different. Some are trying to look at this as stopping an Islamic tsunami," Coleman says. "That's not the best way to look at this. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in Egypt, where it has been the top opposition movement for decades and decades. It is a real formidable social, religious, and political force."

The Libyan Brotherhood, in contrast, "is a pale shadow of that."

That's because longtime dictator Muammar Qadhafi suppressed the Islamist group, seeing it as a potential threat.

Thousands of Libyans went to the polls last Saturday in the first elections there in decades, marking a major political milestone since Qadhafi was ousted and killed last year.

The National Forces Alliance, composed of nearly 60 political factions, appears poised to defeat the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, according to media reports from the region and early results released by the nation's election commission. NFA leader Mahmoud Jibril is expected to be selected as Libya's new prime minister.

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The Arab Spring swept Islamists into power in Tunisia and Egypt, with the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi capturing the latter's presidency last month.

"This was not a vote against the Muslim Brotherhood as much as it was the people saying, 'OK, this is something that is inclusive and capable and knows where this nation needs to go,' " Coleman says.

"This election was much more recognition," Coleman says. "Jibril is someone people there have a grudging respect for."

The National Forces Alliance has said it will not rule as a secular government, but as an Islamic-based one. Still, experts say it is too early to predict just how the National Forces Alliance will govern.

"Today marks the end of the beginning for Libya's transition to democracy. One election does not make a democracy, but there can be no democracy without an election," U.S. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who lobbied hard for the U.S.- and NATO-led military intervention that tipped the 2011 Libyan civil war in favor of rebel forces. "There will be difficult struggles and challenging days ahead for Libya, and there will surely be more setbacks and stumbles along the way."

There is "enormous wealth" in the North African nation due to its oil industry, Coleman says. Qadhafi stashed large sums of money in sovereign wealth funds in recent years, meaning "there are funds just sitting there, waiting to be used for Libya's national development," she says.

"There is the potential for a massive economic growth spurt with investments in infrastructure, schools, modern technology, tourism, and highways," says Coleman.

The National Forces Alliance did not propose such an investment plan during the election process, but one of its goals is to invest heavily to modernize the nation's oil sector.

If the NFA opts to upgrade Libya's infrastructure and oil industry, its leaders inevitably will go looking for foreign investment dollars. And that could improve ties to the U.S. and Europe.

But that doesn't mean Libya will quickly become a utopia of stability and widespread wealth. The country deserves credit for pulling off the national elections, Coleman says, but several times during a telephone interview, she referred to Libya as "starting from scratch."

And McCain, who was in Libya to witness Saturday's voting, noted "this election was not flawless." McCain, a longtime proponent of U.S. intervention to attempt planting the seeds of democracy, described dozens of polling sites that were unable to open and localized violence.

Additionally, "there are a lot of tribal and clan tensions...that are very strong centrifugal forces that will be pulling this country apart while you have another effort to build broad-based institutions to pull it together," Coleman says. "There are some very clear divisions between the cities where there is a lot of wealth and the inner parts of the country that are very, very poor."

One of the first orders of business for the coalition government? Deciding how to divide Libya's oil revenues among the nation's various tribes, Coleman says, adding: "That really will be the big question."

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact him at or follow him on Twitter.

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