LONDON: On the face of it, Libya was always unpromising soil for the great hopes of the Arab spring. Muammar Qadhafi ran a highly repressive dictatorship that used the country’s oil wealth, tribal divisions and in the end tacit western support to stay in power long past his sell-by date — until rebel fighters and Nato bombs saw him off.

With 130 different and brand new parties competing, the outcome of its first parliamentary election in 47 years was always likely to be messy. But raucous and confusing choice was a natural reaction to the fake “direct democracy” of Qadhafi's “Jamahiriya” — “state of the masses”. Libyans evidently enjoyed voting.

Transition from dictatorship throws up different problems in different countries. In Tunisia and Egypt opposition groups had competed in rigged competitions; their respective armies also behaved differently. Libya, by contrast, had no powerful military, no parties, elections, or elected parliament.

Its unique political environment meant that this vote would be fragmented. So it makes tactical sense for Mahmoud Jibril to call for a “grand coalition” under his National Forces Alliance (NFA). Big challenges are tackled more easily with wide support.

Jibril has the advantage of experience. He oversaw economic reforms under Saif al-Islam al-Qadhafi and then played a vital role drumming up western support for the February uprising. But he faces the resentment of rebel commanders and Islamists.

Under intense international scrutiny, Libyans produced a respectable turnout of 65 per cent for a poll that was remarkably peaceful and has been certified as largely free and fair.

Libya is a far more socially conservative country than either of its Mahgreb neighbours. In that context the NFA can call itself progressive while also endorsing sharia law — as a way of acting as a counterweight to the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction Party and the Homeland Party, led by Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, who led the anti-Qadhafi Libyan Islamic Fighting Group.

Neither are likely to disappear as significant political forces and it would be premature to write Islamists out of the Libyan script.

And this election is just a first step in a process that has to meet a tight timetable — and which will almost certainly be delayed.

Parties have only been allotted 80 out of 200 seats in an assembly whose task is to name a government before preparing parliamentary elections in 2013 on the basis of a constitution that has still to be drafted — a significant complicating factor Libya shares with Egypt.

The remaining 120 seats will go to independent candidates.

For any Libyan government, the biggest immediate challenge — stressed by Jibril in an interview on Monday — remains taking control of the militias which operate outside the law and refuse to disarm or join the army or police.

Legal reforms and financial transparency in the all-important oil sector are tough nuts to crack. Another big national issue is the unrest in Benghazi, where the uprising began, over demands for fairer representation for Cyrenaicia, still chafing under the discrimination it suffered in the 42 years of the Qadhafi era.

Libya has entered a new age, but no-one, least of all its newly-elected leaders, underestimates the scale of the problems that lie ahead. It will be a long and bumpy ride.

By arrangement with the Guardian

Updated Jul 10, 2012 10:14pm

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