Libya's independents might emerge as third power

Libya's elections have brought in a large new political generation of independents — businessmen, activists, former judges and former exiles — who form the largest bloc in the first elected national assembly after Moammar Gadhafi's fall and will be the big wild card in determining the country's course.

Both a coalition led by the secular former Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril and a rival bloc of Islamists led by the Muslim Brotherhood are trying to woo them, but many of the independents are trying to form their own coalition, distrusting both sides.

The results from Libya's landmark election, announced late Tuesday, open a phase of political maneuvering to establish a more solid transitional leadership of the oil-rich North African nation that has been largely rudderless and chaotic for eight months since the death of Gadhafi in the civil war that brought down his regime.

The maneuvering takes place in a country that is effectively a political blank slate after decades of rule by Gadhafi, who stripped it of institutions and political movements and considered democracy a form of tyranny. All Libya's political parties are new, created in recent months, and most of the candidates who ran in this month's elections were unknowns with little political experience or clear ideologies.

The one clear message from the election was a surprise rejection of Islamist parties, which performed below expectations as Libyans bucked a regional trend set by its neighbors Egypt and Tunisia, where mass uprisings that toppled leaders brought Islamists to power.

The election commission announced the official results 10 days after nearly 1.7 Libyans cast their ballots to select a 200-member assembly that will serve as a parliament and put together a government until a new constitution is written.

Jibril's National Forces Alliance secured the biggest chunk of the 80 assembly seats allocated to political parties — 39, a major win over the Muslim Brotherhood, which came in a second place with only 17 seats. The Homeland Party, another Islamist group led by former jihadist and rebel commander Abdel-Hakim Belhaj got none of the party seats, despite a large and expensive election campaign nationwide.

But both Jibril's coalition and the Brotherhood remain only small portions of the assembly since the remaining 120 seats were set aside for independents. Among them were some who were fielded by Jibril's coalition or by the Islamists without using their party names. But the majority of them have no political affiliation and are up in the air for either side to try to bring into alliances.

Wins by pro-Brotherhood independents bring the group's bloc in parliament to at most 37, according to Nizar Kiwan, a pro-Brotherhood independent who won a seat in Tripoli. Jibril's coalition backed 100 independents in the race, but it was not yet clear how many of them won so the final size of his bloc was not known. Jibril's deputy Abdel-Rahman al-Shater ran as independent and won a seat in Tripoli.

Kawan suggested that the Brotherhood would seek to work with its rivals to form a broad coalition.

The Brotherhood knows that "polarization won't benefit anyone," he said. "This is an era of transformation where the broad headline is consensus and national unity."

But among the true independents, there is considerable mistrust of both sides. In their eyes, the Brotherhood are seen as too ideological and power hungry. Some also see Jibril as too connected to Gadhafi's regime, in which for a time he served as an economic adviser close to Gadhafi's son Seif al-Islam before breaking with him and eventually joining the revolution. His critics view him as opportunistic, floating promises to appease multiple sides, including remnants of the old regime. Jibril himself could not run in the election since the rules barred members of the transitional administration that ran the country since Libya's fall.

Several independents spoke to Associated Press said that they are working on joining ranks and forming their own bloc.

"We are trying to create a third way," said Saleh Gawouda, a prominent political activist and writer who won a seat in Libya's second largest city, Benghazi. "The parties are trying to rally independents but until now they only met with nine or something, not big deal."

"This new coalition will be a nationalist one," he said.

Gomaa Atiqa, a well known rights advocate who won in Misrata, the third largest city, also said he was trying to collect independents in a coalition to "achieve balance and limit struggle of power inside parliament. We need to make balance."

"People want to get out of the robe of ideology and slogans. They are sick of slogans after the painful experience they passed through under the old regime," he said.

The rivalry between Jibril's camp and the Brotherhood runs deep. Islamists have loudly denounced Jibril, accusing him of being a member of the old regime. The grand mufti of Libya, the country's highest cleric, urged Libyans not to vote for those who won't serve Islamic Shariah law in a religious edict days before the election.

The Islamists "never trusted him either because of his ideology, his connections or the way he is trying to win everyone and how he is easygoing with a sector of Libyans who didn't join the revolution from the beginning," said Mohammed el-Megarif, a former exiled opposition figures who new National Front party won three seats.

He said the two rivals' attempts to win independents were only sharpening divisions.

"This polarization is unhealthy," he said, adding that his party refused to join ranks with Islamists.

However, analysts say the Brotherhood and Jibril will have to reach some sort of understanding to prevent any backlash from the multiple militias in the country that have degrees of loyalty to each.

The top commander of one of Libya's biggest militia, the Feb. 17 brigade, Fawzi Abu-Katef, is a Brotherhood member. The Islamist Belhaj commands another militia group in Tripoli. Jibril is believed to be widely supported by militias in the mountain town of Zintan.

"They will have to sit together and talk because of what we can call the balance of terror in the street," said Fathi Ben-Essa, a political analyst.

The new assembly will replace the outgoing National Transitional Council, which led a messy transition since Gahdafi's fall.

The head of the assembly will act as head of the state while the assembly will serve as the legislature. It will also put together a Cabinet to govern until a new constitution is drafted by a 60-member panel, which will be selected either by the assembly or by direct popular vote.