In choosing a slate of pro-Western moderates to form a new national assembly, voters in Libya'sfirst elections since the ouster of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi last year have shown that the rise of democracy in the Arab world doesn't automatically lead to governments dominated by Islamists.
Preliminary tallies from the balloting Saturday indicate a coalition led by Mahmoud Jibril, an American-trained engineer who served as interim prime minister of the rebel government in Benghazi, holding a substantial lead over a rival bloc backed by the Muslim Brotherhood. The success of Mr. Jibril's party marks a departure from the outcome of popular uprisings in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco, where Islamist parties have dominated parliamentary elections, and suggests that nations in the region are capable of developing quite different paths to democratic self-rule.
The elections, which some had feared would spark a breakdown in order or civil war, were not perfect by any means. Voters in some parts of the country had to brave isolated incidents of violence to cast their ballots. Rebel militias in several eastern towns reportedly attacked polling sites there, fearing the elections would lead to their region being dominated by the western part of the country. But overall, Libyans defied efforts to keep them away from polls, and the interim government said 94 percent of the country's polling places had opened, with turnout of more than 60 percent.
The vote was held to elect a 200-member assembly that initially was charged with governing the country for the next 18 months and drafting a constitution. At the last minute, however, the latter power was stripped from the body to placate Easterners' fears the document would favor the more populous West. (Separate elections will be held later to choose a smaller panel for that task, to be drawn equally from all sections of the country.) Saturday's assembly vote was to seat a governing body composed of 100 members from the West, 60 from the East and 40 from the South.
Ironically, Libyan's transition to democracy may have been made somewhat easier than those in other nations in the region due to the fact that Gadhafi ruthlessly crushed dissent during his four decades in power, leaving the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups less able to organize a viable opposition. Nor did Gadhafi's fall leave Libya with an entrenched military that remained loyal to the previous regime and eager to preserve the status quo, as in Egypt. The very fact that Gadhafi had embodied the Libyan state in his own person meant that once he was out of the picture the country could embark on a new path with virtually a clean slate.
Mr. Jabril has deftly negotiated the opportunity offered by Libya's unique situation. Although his Islamist rivals sought to brand him as a "liberal" and a "secularist," many Libyans seemed to welcome a less ideological approach. He deliberately refrained from labeling his opponents as extremists, promising instead that Islamic law would be an important inspiration for future legislation, but not the only one.
The outcome vindicates the U.S.' cautious decision to play only a limited role in backing the rebels, who would have been crushed without the help of America and its allies in the region. As it is, the U.S. can claim it supported the Libyan people's desire to free themselves from a brutal tyrant without having its fingerprints all over the new government.
If Libya's experiment works it could prove a moderate counterweight to Islamist influence elsewhere by showing there can be more than one model for Arab democracy. At the same time, its example may compel Islamist governments to take a more pragmatic approach to issues that affect all countries in the region. Although for now Mr. Jibril is barred from holding elected office, he doubtless will be major voice in next phase of Libya's political transition, and his non-ideological stance may well enhance his prestige as a unifying figure.
However the final election results turn out, Libya's new government will face major challenges, including disarming the militias left over from last year's uprising, uniting the country under a central government, repairing the country's war-damaged physical infrastructure and developing economic policies that create jobs and opportunities for its citizens. The country is fortunate in that it enjoys significant oil wealth, but in order to fulfill the high hopes entrusted to its new government, its leaders will still have to show they can use that resource wisely in a way that benefits Libyans in all parts of the country.