TRIPOLI, Libya – A Libyan political alliance trying to hold off Islamist rivals used just one face on their campaign posters: the image of a former rebel prime minister who once taught strategic planning at the University of Pittsburgh.
"Founded by Mahmoud Jibril" read the fliers and posters for the secular-leaning coalition that appeared to have the early edge over the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist backers in the vote counting from Saturday's parliamentary election. If the liberals hang on, the outcome will likely speak more about Jibril's skills at populism than a wellspring of support for his relatively unknown political allies.
Jibril — a globe-trotting envoy for the rebel cause after abandoning his adviser post within Moammar Gadhafi's regime — is now in position to become one of Libya's political point men by serving as a kind of catch-all figure to unite an array of liberals, secularists and moderates in the nation's first open elections in nearly five decades.
Under the umbrella of the alliance, parties' programs are identical and simple. They center on Libyans' top worries: restoring security, boosting the oil industry and keeping Islamic Sharia codes from expanding. Jibril has so far managed to strike all chords, making his alliance possibly the first since the Arab Spring to humble the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist allies after surging to power in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia.
"People don't know parties or personalities," said Shoueb al-Shehebi, an activist in eastern Libya who boycotted the elections. "They only know Jibril."
Gaining control of the 200-seat parliament by Jibril's alliance could bring a government more open to the Western investment and partnerships. Final results are not expected for days.
But, like any rising political force, Jibril stirs a backlash.
Rivals say that Jibril has led a fear-mongering campaign against Islamists and capitalized on Libyans' fear of another chaotic Egyptian or Tunisian scenario.
"They exploited people's fear of another Islamist-led state," said Mahmoud al-Shebani, a candidate of the National Parties' Bloc, which describes itself as a centrist faction. "They launched an extensive campaign warning that Islamists will turn Libya to Taliban or will rule like (the late Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah) Khomeini."
Jibril, 60, is not on the ballot under rules blocking members of the anti-Gadhafi transitional government from running. Instead, he acts as a mix of elder statesman and spokesman for a political coalition of more than 50 parties — some as small as just a handful of people. He launched a private TV network, toured the country and opened new branches in many cities.
In Tripoli's upscale neighborhood Andalus, the alliance headquarters is located in a four-floor building overlooking the Mediterranean. The headquarters is a beehive, packed by young men and women.
"Where did he get the money from? Look at the army of employees he got," said al-Shebani.
Curiously, Jibril's core viewpoints are borrowed largely from his reform plans as a senior Gadhafi economic adviser and protege to Gadhafi's son and presumed heir, Seif al-Islam.
The so-called "Libya Tomorrow Project," which Jibril helped author, promoted sell-offs of state companies, more international-friendly policies, reconciliation with opposition movements and stronger human rights commitments. At the time, it was initially well received by Libyans, but seen by critics as a way for Gadhafi's son to market himself to the West as Libya also tried to repair its global image.
Jibril broke with the regime in the early days of the rebellion last year and quickly managed to reinvent himself as a rebel leader through his international ties — including fluent English from his advanced degrees at the University of Pittsburgh — and backing from his powerful Warfalla tribe.
Mohammed al-Alagi, head of Libya's Human Rights Commission, said that Jibril's alliance managed to cover up its "weaknesses and the weakness of their candidates" by putting Jibril's picture on posters so voters could easily identify with it.
"It was a smart move," said al-Alagi, whose newly founded Free Libyans party joined the alliance. "We joined the alliance because we didn't want to fragment the votes and because we are looking for the real race in year 2013" — when new parliamentary elections are expected.
Unofficial and preliminary results issued by political groups Sunday suggested Jibril's coalition was leading. The first tallies issued by the election commission on Monday also gave the lead to Jibril's group.
At a news conference late Sunday, Jibril played the role of centrist with his outreach clearly aimed at Islamists who may see him as a foe. "There is no space for exclusion in the new Libya," he told reporters. He urged Libyans to have "open hearts" to all who opposed the regime.
Hamouda Sayala, spokesman of the alliance, called Jibril a symbol of the alliance given his role in the revolution thanks to his diplomatic efforts to win recognition of the National Transitional Council, which became the centerpiece of the anti-Gadhafi resistance.
"Libya is exceptional when it comes to democracy because we didn't know democracy for more than five decades," he said. "Gadhafi turned all opposition to enemies from Islamists to Marxists. He suppressed all."