TRIPOLI, Libya – Libya's first nationwide elections in nearly five decades brought hints Sunday of an Arab Spring precedent: Western-leaning parties making strides over Islamist rivals hoping to follow the same paths to power as in neighbors Egypt and Tunisia.
While final results from Saturday's parliamentary election could still be days away under a two-tier selection system, unofficial and partial counts from Libya's biggest cities suggested liberal factions were leading the Muslim Brotherhood and allies in a possible first major setback to their political surge following last year's uprisings.
If the Libyan trend holds — which is still far from certain — it would challenge the narrative of rising Islamist power since the fall of Western-allied regimes from Tunis to Cairo. It also could display the different political dynamics in Libya, where tribal loyalties run deep and groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood at times cooperated with the rule of Moammar Gadhafi.
"Anyone with past ties with old regime is hated, even despised," said Fathi al-Fadhali, a pro-Islamist Libyan political analyst who lived in exile for 30 years. "Any political names associated with the regime are immediately politically burnt by that association."
Ultimately, the 200-seat parliament will face the task of forming a government — which could become tests of strength for Islamists and secular forces over questions such as women's rights, the extent of traditional Islamic law and relations with the U.S. and other Western nations that helped bring down Gadhafi.
U.S. President Barack Obama congratulated Libyans on the vote, calling it "another milestone on their extraordinary transition to democracy." U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon praised the people of Libya and the candidates who "contested the election in a peaceful, democratic spirit," according to his spokesman.
Now, the ballots have to be portioned out according to two categories: Eighty seats are set aside for party lists, and the remaining 120 for individual independent candidates.
In the first group, a liberal alliance led the former rebel prime minister Mahmoud Jibril appeared to hold more than half the seats in the capital Tripoli and the revolution stronghold of Benghazi, according to several party representatives. They spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to brief media.
In western Libya, where Jibril's tribe, the Warfalla, is prominent, his party also was on the top in the early counting, the political officials said. In Libya's third-largest city, Misrata — which was besieged by Gadhafi forces for weeks — an upstart faction of local politicians appeared to hold the lead in another possible blow to Islamists.
Faisal Krekshi, secretary general of Jibril's Alliance of National Forces, said the results were based on reports by party representatives at ballot counting centers across the vast desert nation of 6 million people. Even officials from rival Islamist parties — the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction Party and the Islamist Al-Watan — described Jibril's alliance as the biggest winner in the race for the 80 party seats.
But even if true, that is still a long way from victory.
The bulk of the parliament — 120 seats — will be decided by the results from the head-to-head races among thousands of candidates, making it nearly impossible to predict.
Shortly before the voting, Libya's Grand Mufti issued a religious edict prohibiting Libyans from voting for secularists. Meanwhile, independent candidates are seen as possible wildcards and could punish both the Muslim Brotherhood and Jibril's factions for having former ties to the Gadhafi regime.
"We are all waiting and we have nothing to suggest that one party is ahead of others," election commission chief Nouri al-Abar told reporters. He also refused to set a date for announcing complete results. Some observers believe it could take nearly a week.
Speaking to reporters, Jibril vowed to "commit ourselves to what the commission will announce officially" and urged for all political factions to work toward "national consensus."
Unlike Egypt — where the Muslim Brotherhood was seen as an alternative to Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian rule — its brethren in Libya must confront a reputation as compromisers with Gadhafi. A former rebel commander, Fadllah Haroun, called it "their black past."
Gadhafi's powerful son, Seif al-Islam, forged deals with the Muslim Brotherhood and allies in efforts to pave the way for his eventual rule. He released more than 150 Islamist political prisoners starting in 2003 and offered others positions in his various media outlets and foundations.
Because of such ties, the Muslim Brotherhood boycotted the first Libyan opposition conference in London in 2005 that called for overthrowing Gadhafi's regime at a time Libya was mending its relations with the West.
Abdel-Latif Karmous, deputy leader of the Libyan Brotherhood who was among the prisoners released by Gadhafi's son, acknowledged that the group faces perceptions as regime allies. "We didn't immerse ourselves in the regime ... We only kept channels open to achieve political mobilization," said Karmous, a professor at Tripoli University.
Since Gadhafi's fall, the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya also has faced questions about its close ties to the wealthy Gulf state of Qatar, which funneled weapons and funds to the anti-Gadhafi forces. Some critics accuse Qatar's rulers of trying to exert influence through Libya's Brotherhood as a bridge between Egypt and Tunisia.
In December, influential Egyptian cleric Youssef al-Qaradawi, who is based in Qatar, flew to Libya aboard a Qatari royal jet and was given a feast by a senior Brotherhood leader, Bashir al-Kebti.
Later, al-Qaradawi and Tunisian Brotherhood leader Rashid al-Ghannoushi traveled to Tripoli to attend a National Reconciliation conference. But members of the rebel-led National Transition Council withdrew in protest "because they only saw it as a promotion and propaganda for the Brotherhood," said Fathi Baja, head of political committee in the NTC.
"Qatar for the Brotherhood is like a shrine," he added. "Twenty-four hour visits, around the clock, members coming and going to Qatar."
Libya also is awash with rival Islamist groups, including the ultraconservative Salafis and jihadists inspired by al-Qaida, which could bring future power plays regardless of the election results.
Fathi Bin Essa, a prominent political analyst, described the elections as only a "rehearsal" to show "who has the real power in the street."
The run-up to the voting, too, showed the political complexities of trying to accommodate all sides in Libya.
Jibril's liberal alliance of about 40 groups emphasized the need for a "civil democratic" state, but said that Islamic Sharia law should guide legislation. Jibril also made a point to appear with Muslim clerics in campaign photos even though he is prohibited from running under rules barring NTC members from the ballot.
But a religious edict by Libya's Grand Mufti, Sheik Sadek al-Ghariani, accused the liberal factions of using Islam to try to court conservative Libyans.
"I advise you to choose the one who will rule by God's religion and God's Sharia," according to an audio clip posted by Libyan activists.
Independent candidate and Benghazi city council member Faraj Negm said "the Libyan street doesn't accept anyone to blackmail them."
"We are one Muslim nation that doesn't pretend to be politically savvy," Nagm said, "but we learn and we don't want anyone to dictate things on us."