WASHINGTON -- In the years that I covered the Middle East, Libya was always kind of the crazy neighbor. The people weren't funny like the Egyptians, they weren't beautiful like the original Arabs of the Arabian peninsula, and if they knew how to gracefully sail boats like the Tunisians, surely they never showed it.
Then when the glassy-eyed Moammar Gadhafi left the desert tent in which he had been raised in the vast expanses of Cyrenaica and Tripoli and ruled over Libya for 42 dark years, the country became even crazier.
In my interview with Gadhafi in 1973, at midnight in his office, I was initially unable to get him to say much of anything interesting. He just stared with that strange, sleepy look of his. Finally, out of desperation, I asked him how he saw Libya's presence in the world.
"Libya," he said with dark enthusiasm, "is in a dark forest surrounded by howling wolves."
So, as this country of only 6 million souls sitting on vast oil wealth has tried to clean house over the last year, there was honestly little reason to expect much from them. There was nothing in their past to say to the world that, hey, while the Egyptians are being cheated again by their military and the Syrians are tearing one another limb from limb, the Libyans might actually do the best.
And yet, that is what has happened. At least as of this writing, the Libyan elections -- not for a president, but for a 200-seat parliament that will form the new government -- were the best so far in the Arab world. Turnout for voting in most cities and towns was between 60 and 70 percent, and it appears that the liberal democratic political leader, former Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, has led his party to victory.
It also appears at this moment that history's man out, Libya, has led the outbreak against the Islamic wave that crashed across Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco in the aftermath of their "Arab springs," most elections bringing the old Muslim Brotherhood to power. In Libya, the two Islamic parties did not come near Jibril and his party.
Part of this important development is due to the repression that Gadhafi, who ruled from a crazy quilt of ideologies incorporating Marxism, desert faith and, above all, Gadhafiism, heaped upon the Islamists. After the Mujahedeen's war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the American arms suppliers left the Afghans in a Central Asian lurch, the Muslim terrorists poured across the middle east into North Africa to the Maghreb, but then skipped over Libya and regrouped mainly in Algeria, where they massacred some 200,000 innocent villagers.
In Libya, in fact, one of the rebellious phrases used during these elections was: "Do the radical Islamists think they are more Muslim than we are?"
In effect, Libya has had the advantage in this election -- and perhaps in this entire period of Middle Eastern history -- because it has not had Islamic political parties already ensconced in the fabric of the country, and it has not had institutions already in place that it had to fight. The only institution that survived Gadhafi's takeover in 1969, Libyans joke, was his secret police.
As The New York Times wrote in a recent piece: "Libyans were inventing a new nation virtually from scratch."
In fact, across the worlds-within-worlds that span the globe today, it has often been those who could start from scratch who moved the fastest toward development -- from the Persian Gulf states, to Oman, to Singapore, to South Korea, to Tunisia and many more. And now, Libya?
So it would seem that the party and loyalists of Mahmoud Jibril, who was interim prime minister during this last year and therefore cannot run immediately again now, will win this round. This would be good for the Libyans and good for the West.
Jibril is a political scientist with a doctorate from the University of Pittsburgh, where he also taught. He is a devout Muslim, but one who insists that "this great religion cannot be used for political purposes. Islam is much bigger than that." His party, the Alliance of National Forces, is one of several secular parties, the other one of note being the National Front party, which organized several failed attempts to assassinate Gadhafi.
So Libya may unwittingly show us one way for hitherto backward countries to develop. It has oil and riches in all that sand, not to speak of some breathtaking Roman ruins, such as Leptis Magna. Finally, what interests me, too, as I see the amazing pictures of Libyans smiling and voting, celebrating and shooting off guns, is that the Libyans today are attractive people. The women are often beautiful and the men, in contrast to 1969, are more sophisticated and worldly.