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Libya, Egypt weather 'Arab Spring' in different ways

July 11, 2012 |  5:00 am

Tripoli's main mosque
Egypt and Libya experienced decades-long autocracies and heady "Arab Spring" uprisings that deposed their repressive strongmen, Hosni Mubarak and Moammar Kadafi. But the similarities of the neighboring North African states, still in the throes of revolution, may end there.

GlobalFocusMonths of multi-stage elections in Egypt have resulted in a slow-burning power struggle between the ascendant Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Mubarak-allied generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

In Libya, by contrast, the erratic patchwork of militias and movements that emerged from the rebellion against Kadafi appears to be coming together in a broad and diverse coalition to govern the oil-rich country.

When the Arab Spring rebellions were at fever pitch early last year, few expected the Egyptian transition out of Mubarak's 30-year reign to be quite as fraught and protracted as it has been since his ouster 17 months ago. Nor did many envision that Libyans would emerge from their first election in half a century with such calm, order and promise.

Middle East analysts observe, though, that Egypt's standoff is not as tense or incendiary as might have been expected after newly inaugurated President Mohamed Morsi staged a showdown with the military Tuesday by convening parliament -- for five minutes -- in defiance of the generals' order to disband it as they seized lawmaking authority for themselves.

Nor, the experts point out, does Libya's seemingly successful vote for a transitional parliament yet herald long-term social peace and security. The ethnic and tribal conflicts that raised fears of violence during Saturday's voting continue to simmer, threatening the progress toward building a grand coalition  under the guidance of returned expatriate Mahmoud Jibril. 

The gathering of Egypt's parliament was a gesture by Morsi to remind the military that he has the power to mobilize supporters to demand return of the authority it stripped from the parliament and presidency last month, said Eric Trager, a scholar with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"The truth is that things in Egypt are incredibly quiet. The whole situation is being played out in legal [forums], not in the streets, and the Brotherhood has been careful not to up the ante with the military," Trager said in a telephone interview from Cairo.

In the midst of oppressive summer heat, few in Egypt are eager for another wave of confrontation, Trager said. Most Egyptians are exhausted by the dramatic events of the last 18 months and dispirited by the outlook for continued instability, he said.

"This is a long-term battle for power between these two entities, but it's a low-flame battle and it is not going to be resolved by one presidential maneuver," Trager said of Morsi's decree convening the lawmakers, which was declared illegal by the Mubarak-era Supreme Constitutional Court later Tuesday.

Libya's postelection fate looks to be in the hands of the U.S.-educated Jibril, a strategic planning professor who returned in 2007 and served as an advisor to Kadafi before defecting to the rebels last year. Jibril's National Forces Alliance won the bulk of Saturday's vote, according to preliminary returns. Libya's Muslim Brotherhood party finished a distant second but refused to concede before the count is concluded.

Jibril has called on the new lawmakers to choose a Cabinet that includes the widest possible span of political, social, economic and religious interests. Whether such a diverse leadership will function with common purpose will depend on whether Libya's wealth is equitably distributed among the small population -- less than 7 million -- riven by tribal clashes and deep regional disparities in development, said Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"This is a race against time now. You had a relatively fair, inclusive process but that was just a first step," Coleman said of the election that international monitors deemed surprisingly free of troubles.

Unlike Egypt, Libya is bereft of institutions after the collapse of Kadafi's 42-year regime, with its army now divided among rival militias and no judiciary to sort out legal problems. Disgruntled rebel leaders in the eastern region around Benghazi, the wellspring of the anti-Kadafi rebellion, have been threatening secession, angered by the smaller allotment of legislative seats the east got compared with the traditional power center around Tripoli.

"Libya has the most potential to meet the economic expectations of its people, and they are starting with a relatively well-educated population and an enormous amount of money," Coleman said, pointing to billions in foreign currency reserves and a revitalized oil industry back to prewar production.

Jibril appears likely to emerge as interim prime minister, and whether he succeeds in uniting the disparate interests will depend on the force of his personality and commitment to national cohesion, Coleman said.

"Sometimes leaders emerge in the form of unexpected people. He may be one of them," she said of Jibril, whom many Benghazi rebel leaders regard warily. "He may have what it takes to hold the center. But he’s got his work cut out for him."

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-- Carol J. Williams in Los Angeles

Photo: Tripoli's main mosque on Tuesday, when partial election returns showed Libya's Muslim Brotherhood party finished a distant second place behind the National Forces Alliance headed by transitional Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril. Credit: James Lawler Duggan / McClatchy Tribune

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