Last month, I was standing in a queue at Beirut airport when I got chatting to an Egyptian couple who were in Lebanon for a long weekend to escape the stifling heat in Cairo. We talked about the weather and the wealth of history in Egypt. “Now, of course,” said the doctor from Zamalek, “Egyptian history is divided into two parts; before the revolution and after. Yesterday, my wife and I voted. It was a wonderful day for our country. We are in a new democratic era.” His party had not won but, he told me, democracy was what mattered.
They told me they were secular liberals who felt immensely proud of their country’s day at the polls. Then, smiling, he and his wife waved their inky fingers. They had come straight from the polling booth.
And today in Libya, as auditors count the votes of country’s first general election since 1965, another historic watershed occurs. Sixty-five per cent of Libyans turned out to vote on Saturday.
The population was asked to determine who would run the country’s General National Congress, an assembly that will write Libya’s constitution and steer it through its transition to full democracy.
The big surprise this week is that Libya seems to have bucked the trend seen in Egypt and Tunisia, where Muslim Brotherhood candidates have won popular support at the ballot box; the first unofficial results show that a coalition led by former prime minister and political scientist, Mahmoud Jibril, gathered 80 per cent of votes in the capital, and 60 per cent in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi.
If he wins when the official ballot is announced later this week he will face the tough task of uniting a divided, traumatised nation. He and his assembly will be tasked with writing the country’s new constitution.
Like the US and French Declaration of the Rights, which both still serve as the blueprint for their modern societies; these tenets are critical. In South Africa, the ironclad document drafted in 1997 by Nelson Mandela has been the country’s moral core, protecting it against the hubris of politics. It’s this type of infrastructure that will determine the fledgling democracies that sprung from the Arab Spring.
Because in many ways democracies don’t evolve. They are drafted by enlightened leaders who see beyond their own time in office to the future of their country. And Jibril’s challenge is to reflect the revolutionaries’ expressions of aspiration and calls for justice that cover the bullet-riddled walls of Libya’s cities.
As the graffiti fades, the language of the new constitution has a chance to be a more permanent feature of the new Libya. Then its citizens will have a real cause to be jubilant. Then they will truly be in another era.