TRIPOLI — Mahmoud Jibril has played a prominent role in Libyan political life ever since Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi brought him into the previous regime as part of his modernization program in 2007.
Having served as head of the National Economic Development Board as well as National Planning Council, Jibril defected from the regime along with several other leading figures at the outset of last year’s pro-democracy uprising.
The former minister’s decision to abandon the regime at a time when the revolution’s success was far from assured earned him plaudits with many Libyans and paved the way for his subsequent emergence as one of the country’s most popular grass-roots politicians.
Others criticized Jibril for the large amount of time he spent outside of the country during the fighting, although his supporters have argued that garnering and maintaining international support was central to his role as the National Transitional Council’s de facto prime minister, given the body’s central function as an interlocutor between Libyan revolutionaries and the outside world.
Following the fall of Sirte in October 2011, Jibril resigned from the NTC, a move he said was consistent with a prior pledge to stand down once the fighting was over, although conflict with other leading members appears also to have been a factor. Others have said the decision was part of a calculated move to prepare himself for a re-entry into political life ahead of the forthcoming national elections.
Five months later, on March 14, 2012, Jibril duly re-emerged in the Libyan national consciousness when he was elected leader of the National Forces Alliance, a 58-party and organization coalition that stood as a single political entity in July’s National Congress elections.
The NFA – which both supporters and opponents have described as toward the liberal-pragmatic end of the political spectrum – won a comprehensive victory in the elections, taking 39 of the 80 seats available for political parties, against no fewer than 130 rivals.
Many people have put the NFA’s success down to Jibril’s widespread popularity amongst ordinary Libyans, together with the fact that he was one of the few recognizable faces of the elections, in spite of the fact that he did not actually stand for a seat in the Congress.
Others have argued that an additional significant factor was a lingering suspicion amongst many Libyans of the Muslim Brotherhood and other avowedly Islamist groups. The Brotherhood’s Justice & Construction party won just 17 seats in the elections, fewer than half the number taken by the NFA.
Although Jibril has repeatedly refuted claims that he is a secularist, he was nevertheless characterized as the ‘liberal’ face of the elections, in particular by the international media.
A comparatively late entrant into the race for prime minister, Jibril does not enjoy the same level of popularity inside the Congress as he does in the country as a whole.
Frequently described as stand-offish, many Congressmen and women have come to resent what they claim is his Machiavellian style of politics, not least his undisguised ambition to play the kingmaker. On the other hand he is also seen as the toughest of the candidates, the man who will take hard decisions and get them implemented.
Having led the NFA to victory in the elections, whilst not actually standing himself, Jibril subsequently attempted to get the independent congressman Ali Zidan installed as head of the Congress in August’s Speaker’s race.
That latter effort failed when a deal between himself and the Islamists fell apart shortly before the vote, resulting in Zidan’s defeat at the hands of Mohammed Magarief, whom the Islamists subsequently supported as a compromise choice.
Indeed, Jibril’s decision to stand directly for prime minister, as opposed to attempting to anoint a chosen candidate, has come as something of a surprise in certain quarters. Many had speculated that Jibril’s run for political office would come if-and-when the office of president was created, with election depending not on the Congress but a direct vote from the Libyan people. The post is seen as one he could easily win.
However, with the Congress having seemingly opted against the creation of such a position during this next phase of the transition, and the outcome of the Constituent Assembly’s deliberations (whatever they may be) still 18 months away, it is believed that Jibril felt that a failure to stand for prime minister now could permanently reduce his political influence going forwards.
Regarding the likely direction of a Jibril premiership, it is probably safe to say the circumstances will, to a great extent, determine the decisions that are made over the next 18 months.
Whoever wins will need to prioritize economic redevelopment, including deploying Libya’s vast oil revenues into developing new job and wealth-creating sectors such as tourism, as well as attracting international business into the country.
On matters of religion, Jibril will be unlikely to do anything to compromise Libya’s essential character as an Islamic state, and he will support the implementation of Shariah as the basis of the law.
However, he is also likely to advocate a comparatively laissez-faire approach from the government on religious issues, arguing that it is not the role of politicians to instruct Libyans how to practice their faith.
Jibril has also spoken repeatedly of the need for reconciliation in Libya.
Immediately following his success in the elections, he launched a charm offensive with the federalists, describing them as “patriots” and pledging to ensure their views were heard in the Congress even though — having boycotted the elections — they had no seats there.
Jibril is also recognized as one of the more promising figures when it comes to reconciliation with Gaddafi loyalists. Himself a former member of the regime, Jibril also hails from the Warfallah tribe, whose seat is Bani Walid, one of the most pro-Gaddafi towns in Libya.
One final factor to look out for will be the importance of personality in determining Libya’s direction over the next 18 months. Of critical importance will be the relationship between the Congress speaker and the prime minister, and here a Jibril premiership could prove interesting.
Unlike the other front-runner for prime minister, Mustafa Abushagur, Jibril is not a close friend and ally of Mohammed Magarief. Also unlike Abushagur, Jibril is seen as a naturally combative personality less prone to compromise.
As yet, neither the full remit of the speaker nor the nature of his relationship with the prime minister have been fully calibrated, and the outcome of that process could have as much to do with the personalities of those occupying the posts as with any formal and pre-determined procedure. — Libya Herald