Mahmoud Jibril’s emphatic victory, in the political party list of the Libyan elections, has been widely reported. There were no exaggerations in the reports. If anything, the generally unreported details show the victory has been understated in the world media.

Such a result is a gauge of how widely (Mahmoud) Jibril is seen today as a national figure- Ranier Fsadni

In a race involving 374 party lists, Dr Jibril’s alliance won just under 50 per cent of the 80 seats reserved for parties alone. But he won an even greater percentage of the votes cast, 62 per cent, and it is reckoned that he would have won more seats had his alliance contested every available district. The second-placed party, identified with the Muslim Brotherhood, obtained 21.3 per cent of the vote.

Dr Jibril romped home against any opposition in the major coastal cities, apart from Misurata. In specific districts he sometimes obtained 90 per cent of the vote. He beat one of his major rivals, Abdelhakim Belhadj, leader of the (Islamist) Union for the Homeland and former head of the Tripoli Military Council, on the latter’s own home turf of the Tripoli suburb of Souq al-Jumaa.

Even where Dr Jibril did badly, he did rather better than expected. In Misurata, he trailed both a political party led by a distinguished local notable as well as Mr Belhadj. However, this was to be expected. Misurata’s long siege had reinforced an already strong esprit de corps for the city, which was also extended to other fighters, such as Mr Belhadj.

And Misurata’s politicians are generally named as a leading force behind the ouster of Dr Jibril from the premiership of the National Transitional Council. It seems they resented him for several things, including for being a Warfalli from Bani Walid.

In this context, it is remarkable that Dr Jibril obtained any significant number of votes at all. Yet, his vote tally amounted to a third of the votes cast for the political party that came first and half of the votes cast for the second-placed party.

Such a result is a gauge of how widely Dr Jibril is seen today as a national figure. Some media sources have spoken of his Warfalli identity, which would root him in the identity of his tribal origins and his home town of Bani Walid. However, although some of his adversaries cast him in that mould, that is not how he behaves – or indeed how he is considered by the Warfalla.

During the height of the crisis between Bani Walid and the National Transitional Council, when Dr Jibril was still serving as Prime Minister, I had asked some people in Bani Walid, still barely settled back in their homes after the fighting had stopped, why they didn’t approach him, if only as a mediator. My naivety was slapped down gently: “He’s not that kind of man. He is national, not tribal”.

As far as I know he never campaigned in Bani Walid. Even during the pre-campaigning period, when he was touring the country giving talks under the umbrella of his civil society organisation, Lana (“For Us” – the idea being that all Libya was one large “we”), he did not visit his home town. He did not run a candidate there.

(Bani Walid’s two seats were taken by a participant in the attempted coup of 1993, who spent many years in gaol, and by a young doctor who earned much respect and gratitude because she remained treating the wounded at the hospital during the most bitter fighting of late 2011. While not pro-Gaddafi, both candidates were portrayed to me as having at best an ambivalent relationship to the NTC.)

Indeed, the only kind of scepticism I have heard expressed about Dr Jibril concerns whether he is sufficiently knowledgeable about tribal politics. In conversation with someone who came to know him in Benghazi during the rebellion, I said I assumed that Dr Jibril must have run some of his own candidates as “independents” in order to have some hold on the 120 seats reserved for non-party lists. I was flatly told that such political calculations just do not come naturally to Dr Jibril.

If they really don’t, they will have to soon. The confidence expressed by the Muslim Brotherhood – that they expect to pick up some support from the independents elected to the General National Congress – suggests that they have pursued such a strategy themselves. To what extent, with some 2,650 candidates running as independents, is difficult to say just yet. It would be a mistake, I think, to suggest that the shape of the political arguments to come will divide along “liberal” and Islamist lines. Dr Jibril has dismissed any characterisation of himself or his alliance as liberal.

And he’s right: John Locke would struggle to be relevant in a country that is the fourth largest in Africa but with one of the smallest populations; with over 90 per cent of its revenues coming from petroleum; with resurgent tribal claims over collective lands, which bypass the liberal distinction between state and individual; with a religion like Islam, which in Libya does not have an “established” religious hierarchy to disestablish...

The challenge before Dr Jibril, his adversaries and their successors is to create a democracy in unprecedented circumstances. If Western observers want to be able to follow the events as they unfold, we must stop assuming that Libya’s politics can be mainstream.

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