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World

Hopes high as Libyan parliament opens

A democratically-elected parliament took over from Libya's transitional government. Along with reining in armed militias, challenges facing the body include rebuilding a badly damaged infrastructure.

The result surprised many. Libya's first free elections in four decades went to former Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril's moderate Islamic alliance, which won 39 of 80 seats in parliament reserved for political parties. The Islamists, who expected a stronger victory, had to settle for less than half of those 80 seats.

Libyans not only surprised most observers. They also went against one of the main trends to take shape in the aftermath of rebellions throughout the Arab world, where balloting has repeatedly empowered Islamists.

Uninfluential Islamists?

A man casts his vote at a polling station in Benghazi July 7, 2012. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

Fewer than expected voted for Islamists

Still, the July 2012 outcome in Libya hardly means the country's Islamists are fading into the political background. Time can only tell how Libya's parliament, which opens its first session Wednesday (08.08.12), takes shape.

Of the 200 seats in the body, 120 were reserved for candidates with no political affiliation. It is not yet clear how much these individuals share an affinity with the established parties, though.

The Muslim Brotherhood claims most parliamentarians will take their side.

"It is theoretically possible that the Islamists will win many independents over to their side," author and Libya expert Kurt Pelda told DW, "that they come to play a large role, if not the most important one in the national assembly."

Pelda added that former Prime Minister Jibril's alliance, which draws on a number of regional groups, also has good chances of establishing an influential position in parliament.

Regional differences

Mahmoud Jibril, Prime Minister of Libya speaks to reporters during the 66th United Nations General Assembly at UN Headquarters in 2011 (ddp images/AP Photo/David Karp)

Some view Jibril as a skilled strategist with populist appeal

All the same, many Libyans feel stronger ties to their city or tribe than to political parties. Before self-styled revolutionary and deposed dictator Moammar Gadhafi came to power in a coup in 1969, the regions of Cyrenaica and Fezzan along with the capital Tripoli had strongly independent identities.

Under King Idris, Libya's first ruler, the country had a federal constitution. The three main areas earlier comprised an Italian colony, but had never made up a single unit before that.

Gadhafi's home city of Sirte as well as the national capital Tripoli were the chief beneficiaries of his rule. Meanwhile, eastern Cyrenaica and its capital Benghazi were neglected. It is no coincidence that the Libyan revolution broke out there in February 2011, and that Benghazi served as capital for the revolutionary government until the fall of Tripoli.

Militias strong

Syrian rebels after a battle in Misrata. Photo by MISSAM SALEH for dpa

Civil war left a strong mark on the landscape

Since the fall of Gadhafi, demands for greater autonomy are growing in Cyrenaica amid concerns the region is losing out to Tripoli. Politicians are yet to seriously propose either a federalist system for the country or full independence for Cyrenaica. Still, the new parliament along with the government in Tripoli will have to take care not to make people both in Cyrenaica and the south of the country feel left out.

Many regions and groups in Libya have their own militias, making it hard for the central government to enforce their claims to exclusive military power in the country. An additional difficulty is that the Libyan army broke up during the civil war.

One of the new government's biggest challenges will be putting the militias under control and integrating the tens of thousands of irregular forces in the country.

"The disarming of armed groups is important for security in the country," Said Laswad, editor-in-chief of the Tripoli Post, told DW.

Gadhafi's legacy

Ships are at anchors in the Mediterranean sea next to the Zawiya Oil Refinery in Zawiya, west of Tripoli in March 2011. Photo: Ben Curtis/AP/dapd

Libya's oil trade has returned to pre-war levels

Libya also faces many economic problems, even though almost as much oil has been produced there in recent months as during peak periods before the civil war.

"Quotas are being met at the cost of supporting and investing in" vital infrastructure, said Pelda. "Something has to happen now, otherwise, Libya's crude oil industry will soon crash again."

In addition to repairing damage from the war, Libya essentially needs to build a new economy. Infrastructure was highly neglected under Gadhafi's rule.

"Forty-two years under Gadhafi's rule have wreaked havoc in the country at every level," said Laswad.

High expectations

The parliament's first tasks include installing a new prime minister, deciding whether to move in a federalist or decentralized direction, and push-starting economic development. The body also needs to address the role of Islam and Sharia law in the country, figure out how to deal with Gadhafi's former supporters, and pass new laws. Not least of all, Libya's parliament has to plan a new round of ballots to vote on the constitution once that is drafted.

Fulfilling Libyans' expectations for more security, jobs and prosperity will not be easy. Yet Libyan voters and politicians have already surprised the skeptics over the past year and a half. They may well surmount the formidable challenges ahead of them.

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