Libyans head to the polls Saturday in the first free national elections since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. But in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, the birthplace of the 2011 uprising, discontent is mounting amid fears of regional marginalization.
A mock ballot box strapped on a car at a demonstration in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi bears registration cards of Libyans protesting Saturday's parliamentary elections, the first national poll since Muammar Gaddafi was ousted last year.
"Boycott the elections",”says a banner in Arabic on the car, while a sign on the mock ballot box reads, "Put your registration cards here".
Standing beside the car, Hadiya Abdullah al-Arabi delivers a lecture on the grievances gripping the eastern Libyan region of Cyrenaica, of which Benghazi is the capital.
Al-Arabi belongs to a camp known in these parts as“the federalists, who are calling for Cyrenaica's autonomy and a boycott of the parliamentary poll.
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But just blocks away, along the city's picturesque waterfront road, Farash el-Sheriff is reverently holding aloft his registration card, as he weaves his way through the crowd.
"I am very happy to vote",”says the 55-year-old Benghazi local before breaking out in rudimentary English: "Libya is free. Libya is one country."”
More than 16 months after the anti-Gaddafi uprising broke out in this city famed for its resistance against oppressors, Benghazi is torn between hopes and fears as Libya crosses a milestone on its road to democracy.
The cradle of the 2011 uprising is back in the international spotlight following a recent spate of attacks and mounting fears that this resource-rich region will once again be marginalized as it was under Gaddafi's rule.
Special correspondent Catherine Norris-Trent reports from Libya
Do revolutionary credentials earn a greater stake in power?
Eight months after Gaddafi was captured and killed, most Cyrenaica residents criticise the National Transitional Council (NTC), Libya's transitional government, for its alleged neglect of the east and its unwillingness to concede either greater political autonomy or enhanced financial contributions to a region that contains four fifths of the oil-rich country's natural resources.
On Saturday, Libyans are voting for a temporary parliament that will take over from the NTC.
But in the months leading up to the historic poll, much of the anger - and fear - has revolved around the allocation of seats between the country's three regions in the 200-member National Assembly.
The allocations, based on demographics, gave 102 seats to the western Tripolitania region, 60 to Cyrenaica and 38 to the southern Fezzan area.
The seat composition sparked howls of protest in Libya's second-largest city, where resentment against the capital city has simmered over the 42 years of Gaddafi's rule.
"I am unhappy about the seats",”said Khaled el-Hashani, a 38-year-old Ministry of Health official from Benghazi.“"They have a majority, they don't need us, they can do what they want. We started the revolution. While we were giving our blood to overthrow Gaddafi, in the West (of Libya) they were going to school, going to the gas stations, they did nothing while we were dying."”
El-Hashani's complaints reflect a common assertion in some parts that Cyrenaica's revolutionary credentials earned the region a greater stake in power.
The dissatisfaction is magnified by the lack of comprehension and election experience in a country that has not held polls - not even sham ones - for decades.
But el-Hashani is careful to assert that he does not agree with the federalists and is a firm believer in Libyan unity.
Special correspondent Leela Jacinto reports from Libya
Dialogue, discourse and the free expression of discontent
Not everyone though finds the seat allocations unjust. "I think it's okay, it doesn't really affect the decisions of the parliament," says Dr. Khaled Diyab, a surgeon who has just moved his family back to Benghazi after 17 years in the UK.
Diyab's return home, forsaking a comfortable life abroad, stems from a desire to contribute to his homeland.
"I felt I had to do it because it's a very critical time," says Diab. "The country can move in the right or wrong direction. We need to build our nation for us, for our kids, to give them a better future," says this 45-year-old father of five.
Elections begin amidst high concerns over security
The future is being hotly contested across this sparsely populated North African nation with dialogue, discourse, discontent - and the free expression of this dissatisfaction - sometimes yielding compromises.
Until Thursday, the new transitional parliament was charged with selecting a committee to write the country's new constitution. But following a spate of protests, the NTC amended the rules, deciding that the constitutional committee will now be elected through another direct election.
Feloul and enemies within the revolution
But not all of Cyrenaica's discontents are being peacefully negotiated.
One of the most brazen among a spate of recent attacks occurred on the eve of Saturday's historic vote, when gunmen shot down a helicopter carrying voting materials while the aircraft was flying over Benina airport on the outskirts of Benghazi. One election worker was killed, while the crew survived after a crash landing, according to an NTC spokesman.
It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack, but the NTC spokesman described the assailants as "enemies of the revolution".
In a country awash with arms and rumors, there are many possible“enemies of the revolution, including Gaddafi supporters, or feloul”- literally “remnants”- as they are called.
But there are also apparently enemies within the revolution. Gaddafi's fall has seen longstanding regional, ethnic and economic disputes erupt in many areas as well-armed groups jostle for power and control of resources in the new Libya.
One of the places that has seen the worst violence in recent months is the remote southeastern Libyan town of Kufra, where deadly clashes have erupted between indigenous black-African Tubu tribesmen and Zuwaya Arabs.
Security has been tightened across this sparsely populated country to prevent further outbreaks of violence on election day.
On the eve of Saturday's elections, a convoy of troops from the newly-formed Libyan National Shield rolled into Benghazi amid cheers from a home crowd.
Standing on a car, waving the Libyan tricolor flag, Ali Id Besh expressed confidence that Libya's democratic roadmap would be largely peaceful - before adding a qualifying “insha'allah”- or God willing.
In this deeply religious cradle of the revolution, that's a sentiment many residents can relate to.
Hundreds of supporters of a federalist system protested east of Benghazi against Saturday’s election. Photo credit: Sarah Leduc/FRANCE24
Activists expressed their opposition to the election by performing the traditional ‘kejhk’ dance. Photo credit: Sarah Leduc/FRANCE24
In Benghazi, cradle of the Libyan revolution, a demonstrator walks past one of the many graffitied effigies of Gaddafi. Photo credit: Sarah Leduc/FRANCE24
A supporter of a federal system waves the black flag of Cyrenaica. Photo credit: Sarah Leduc/FRANCE24
The most defiant protesters drop their registration cards in a mock ballot-box. Photo credit: Sarah Leduc/FRANCE24
Date created : 2012-07-07