Sunday, December 23, 2012

Libya Votes Out Islamists: Why Not in Egypt

Libya Votes Out Islamists: Why Not in Egypt

Libyans demonstrate against the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 12, 2012. (Photo: Reuters)The U.S. is trying to ride the Arab Spring like an out-of-control horse, not knowing where it will end up and fixated on surviving with as few injuries as possible. Falling into an Islamist ditch as happened in Egypt is not inevitable. Libya, as problematic as it remains, voted against the Islamists, delivering them a surprising and demoralizing defeat. A comparison of the two situations is useful as the U.S. debates how to handle Syria and the other countries facing potential revolutions.
In Egypt, the U.S. was strongly identified with the Mubarak regime, fueling the anti-Western sentiment that is the linchpin of the Islamist ideology. It didn’t help that the Obama Administration cut funding for democracy programs in Egypt by 50% in its first year—or that when the revolution began, Vice President Biden said Mubarak isn’t a dictator and shouldn’t step down—or that Secretary of State Clinton said Mubarak’s regime was stable as the protests raged.
In Libya, the U.S. was strongly identified with the Libyan rebels. The delayed response to Qaddafi’s killing spree did cause some suspicions that the U.S. had a secret arrangement with him, but the NATO military intervention resulted in a burst of pro-American sentiment. U.S. soldiers weren’t on the ground, preventing fears of occupation. The theme of confronting the West couldn’t carry much weight on the campaign trail.
Today, the U.S. is viewed more favorably by Libyans than among Canadians. Obviously, Islamist terrorists still exist, as we saw in the September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. However, Libyans spontaneously responded with pro-American demonstrations, condemnations of the attacks and massive protests in favor of disbanding militias. Hundreds of Libyans took it upon themselves to overtake the Ansar al-Sharia headquarters in Benghazi, lighting it on fire.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood called the country home. This is where it was founded all the way back in 1928. Westernization had seeped in, but the most organized religious movement was the Islamists, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists.
In Libya, there is a history of Sufism and more liberal religious interpretations. As Stephen Schwartz explains, Libya’s first leader as an independent state was the Sufi King Idris. He led from 1951 until 1969, when Qaddafi came to power. His Sufism holds that Sharia law should be a thing of the past and directly challenged Wahhabism. The King’s flag was even flown by Libyan rebels. Additionally, Qaddafi permitted more liberal Islamic teachings, including those that did not give credibility to the Hadith books. When it came time for elections, the Islamists were crushed.
In Egypt, the main opposition was Islamist. There were secular elements, but the Islamists were in the driving seat. In Libya, the opposition body was led by secularists, though it included Islamists. The National Transitional Council was led by Mahmoud Jibril, whose bloc later won the elections. The vice chairman boldly said, “There is no place for an Islamic state in Libya. A spokesperson for the opposition even said Israeli help would be welcomed.
With backing from Qatar, the Islamists forced Jibril to resign after Qaddafi was killed, conceding that “the political struggle requires finances, organization, arms and ideologies. I am afraid I don’t have any of this.” Despite this setback, the secular forces had organized. Their leaders were visible and respected. The Brotherhood had operated there for decade and had an international network, but the Islamists still lost big time.
In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood won the presidency (albeit barely) by winning the support of those who saw Ahmed Shafiq as an agent of the Mubarak regime. He was, after all, the Prime Minister from January through March 2011. To these voters, a Shafiq victory would erase the revolution. The Muslim Brotherhood could at least be voted out later.
In Libya, the regime was completely overthrown. The election was not between a regime figure and an opposition figure. It was between a secular opposition figure and an Islamist opposition figure. Had that been the case in Egypt, it is probable that Mohammed Morsi would have lost at least 3.4% of the vote, costing him the election.
There are lessons to be learned here. Broadly, the U.S. must defend Western values and attack Islamism. Specifically, the U.S. must encourage non-democratic Muslim governments, including allies, to permit and even promote liberal Islamic interpretations like those of the Libyan Sufis. Not all Sufis are friendly to the West, but if the conversation about reinterpretation and reform enters the mainstream, it will be hard to stop. You can force someone to shut up, but you can’t force their brain to stop thinking.
The U.S. must establish relationships with secular democratic forces throughout the Muslim world so that they become organized and can fill power vacuums. The U.S. must require that opposition bodies be secular-led in order to receive recognition. And the U.S. must recognize that we have an interest in the outcome of the struggle between secularist and Islamist forces.
Ryan Mauro is's National Security Analyst and a fellow with the Clarion Fund. He is the founder of and is frequently interviewed on Fox News.

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