I found myself reading about the results of the first post-Qadhafi Libyan parliamentary election in between visits to the great Piazza del Campo and its majestic Town Hall in Siena, Italy, where I am attending an international conference on the role of civil society, philanthropy and the non-governmental sector.
Two elements in the Siena monuments particularly caught my attention: the anthropomorphic depiction of “justice” in a string of sculptures in the Gaia Fountain, created by Jacopo della Quercia around 1400-1419, and the painted allegories of “good government” and “bad government” by the Sienese painter Abrogio Lorenzetti, which were completed in 1337-39.
The juxtaposition of these depictions from early Renaissance Italy and the Libyan elections, and the continuing quest today for stable governance and productive civil society around the world, struck me as a timely reminder of an important reality that we should keep in mind as we watch the continued transformations of Arab political systems: The struggle by human beings to develop effective and legitimate systems of government has been going on for a very long time, and in some cases required centuries of experimentation before an equilibrium was established between the rights of individuals and the need for social order and communal economic well-being.
The fact that people in Italy were grappling with these issues six centuries ago is a humbling reminder of this. Even more noteworthy is that the Renaissance was sparked in large part by influences that reached southern Europe from the predominantly Arab-Islamic Middle East — where for two millennia before the Renaissance people had similarly grappled with questions of good governance, individual rights, the rule of law and, above all, justice for all.
The results of the first post-Qadhafi elections in Libya, therefore, should be seen in a wider historical context, rather than overreacting to immediate developments or exaggerating the meaning of any single development or emerging trend.
For example, international media analyses about the Libyan election results focused on the relatively poor showing by the Islamist parties and the apparent victory of the coalition of groups headed by Mahmoud Jibril, who had served in senior positions under both Muammar Qadhafi and the transitional government that replaced him.
The relatively poor showing by the Islamists seemed out of synch with the successes by Islamists in most other recent elections around the Arab world, whether in revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt or in more sedate places like Morocco and Kuwait.
The Libyan results are another indicator of how the very wide variety of conditions around the Arab world will result in political outcomes that vary significantly.
Libya is noteworthy in the context of the Arab uprisings in that its people’s first order of business is not only to develop a credible and legitimate system of political governance, but also to revalidate the concept and identity of a single Libyan state that is recognised by all its citizens.
The tragedy of most of the Arab world is that since its birth, almost a century ago, its citizens had little or no say in how their countries were formed, or how they were subsequently governed. Suddenly, today, tens of millions of people in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya (and other countries to follow) find themselves able to decide on these fundamental elements of statehood and citizenship.
The individual Libyan who goes to the polls can be motivated by different elements of his or her identity, such as tribal, ideological, religious or geographic sentiments, combined with their immediate interests or needs, such as security, jobs, income or basic social services.
The Islamic element of Libyans’ identity is strong, as it is across the region, though in some instances, religious sentiments will be dominated by tribal allegiances that have a better chance of mobilising political power and providing the community with those priorities of rights and needs that it articulates at any given moment.
My guess is that because Libya is still addressing the most basic elements of state formation, for now tribe trumps religion in the aggregation of political power in the public sphere.
This complex matrix of individual identities and needs means that individuals will constantly evolve in their political behaviour, especially in voting and especially in volatile situations such as we are experiencing across the Arab world in transitioning societies.
This has been most evident in Egypt, where tribal identity is weak or non-existent, but secular values, religion, and Egyptian and Arab nationalism are stronger. So the current battle in Egypt revolves around the military and the Islamists vying for constitutional legitimacy and political power.
As I enjoy the beauty of the artistic representations of justice and good governance in Siena some 600 years ago, it is heartening to finally witness Arab peoples starting on the same trajectory of trial-and-error in the noble endeavour of shaping systems of governance, power, identity and accountability in the public sphere.
The writer is a prominent columnist. The article was published in Jordan Times on July 12, 2012