Libya’s new national assembly late on Thursday elected as its president Mohamed Al Magariaf, a staunch opponent of former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi’s overthrown regime who is seen by some as being pro-Islamist.
Al Magariaf, who had led the Libyan National Salvation Front that grouped exiled opponents of Qaddafi, won with 113 votes in the General National Congress against liberal independent candidate Ali Zidane, who got 85.
Libya’s National Transitional Council (NTC) on Wednesday handed power to the new assembly, elected on July 7, in a symbolic move marking a peaceful transition after the overthrow of Qaddafi’s 40-year rule in last year’s uprising.
Al Magariaf, born in 1940 in the eastern city of Benghazi, was elected to the congress under the flag of his grouping, renamed the National Front Party. The poll for leadership of the new congress was broadcast live on Libyan television.
Five candidates were whittled down to two in a run-off vote,
The new congress president, an economist with a British doctorate in finance, had held leading posts under Qaddafi in the 1970s.
In 1980, he resigned as Libya’s ambassador to India to join the opposition in exile and co-founded the National Salvation Front.
Hunted by Qaddafi’s intelligence service, he spent 20 years in the US as a political refugee before returning to Libya in the wake of the revolution there.
The congress will be tasked with choosing a new interim government to take over from the NTC and will steer the country until fresh elections can be held.
Libyans elected a legislative assembly of party and independent representatives last month, in their first free vote since a popular uprising last year ousted Qaddafi.
Of the 200 assembly members, the lion’s share of seats has been set aside for individual candidates whose loyalties and ideologies remain unclear, but who are being wooed by various blocs.
Whether two or three major forces emerge in the congress, decisions in the assembly require a two-thirds majority to pass, making cooperation necessary to avoid gridlock in the delicate transition.
Among the parties, which hold 80 seats, the liberal coalition of wartime premier Mahmoud Jibril performed best, securing 39 seats.
Jibril’s National Forces Alliance also counts on the support of a centrist party led by Ali Tarhuni, who held several key posts during last year’s revolt. It obtained two seats in the congress.
The Justice and Construction Party (JCP), launched by Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood, came in second with 17 seats. However, its leader, Mohammed Sawan, says the party can even the score by bringing independent candidates to its side.
A member of the JCP who asked not to be named said Al Magariaf’s election was “a victory for the Islamists,” but an independent assembly member said several members voted for him on geographical and not religious or political grounds.
Choosing a president from the east of the country should help mollify residents who complained of the region’s marginalization under Qaddafi, the member said.