Libyans vote in first elections since fall of Gaddafi
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More than eight months after Muammar Gaddafi was captured and killed, Libyans flocked to the polls Saturday to elect a national assembly that will set the blueprint for democracy in Libya.
in Benghazi, Libya
To exuberant cries of Allah-u Akbar (God is great), tears of joy and some bafflement over the unfamiliar business of casting their ballots, Libyans on Saturday voted in the country’s first national elections since the rise and fall of Muammar Gaddafi.
But there were scattered incidents of disruptions and violence, primarily in the eastern Cyrenaica region, underlining the precarious security situation in a country awash with arms following the 2011 uprising.
One protester was shot dead as he tried to steal a ballot box in the eastern town of Ajdabiya, where ballots were torched in 14 out of 19 polling centers, according to local security officials.
In Benghazi, the capital of Cyrenaica, a demonstrator succumbed to a bullet wound sustained during clashes between pro-and anti-election demonstrators.
Earlier Saturday, at a school building-turned polling station in Benghazi, armed men stormed the premises, firing into the gym as panicked voters filed out.
The assailants broke the seals of at least three ballot boxes, ripping out the ballot papers and shredding them before storming out.
Hearing the gunfire, residents of the neighbourhood arrived with their personal weapons, sealing the polling center until hours later, amid blaring sirens, a convoy of government-controlled troops arrived at the Talaytala School to secure the premises.
They were greeted, once again, by the customary cries of Allah-u Akbar before new election materials arrived and voting resumed.
There were at least four such incidents in Benghazi, a city famed for its resistance, and known across the world as the cradle of the 2011 uprising.
UN Libya envoy Ian Martin however said the disruption in the east was unlikely to undermine the credibility of the election.
Across the country, 94 percent of polling stations were opened for voting, said an election commission official at a midday press conference in the Libyan capital of Tripoli.
But by the end of the day, election commission officials said voting had taken place in all of Libya's electoral districts. Voting hours were extended at some polling stations to allow everyone to cast their ballots.
'The start of a new life'
Despite the attacks and security threats, voting was brisk in Benghazi and the capital of Tripoli, where voters queued up at polling stations before the polls opened at 8am local time.
In the al Fwaihat district of Benghazi, Hamida Benamer, 85, tottered into the women's section of a polling station supported by her 20-year-old half-Libyan, half-Irish grandson, Carey Benamer.
"I'm very happy to be able to vote," said Benamer. "I was in Cairo, where my daughter lives, but I came back to Benghazi especially for the elections because I didn't want to miss them."
Her Dublin-based grandson however was unable to vote since there was no Libyan Embassy in the Irish capital. But he said he was thrilled to be in Benghazi on this historic day.
According to Libyan election officials, 6,450 overseas Libyan voted abroad earlier this week.
Beyond the alarming headlines, many ordinary Libyans have expressed excitement and a keen awareness of the historic significance of Saturday’s vote, the country’s first in decades.
"July 7 is an important day – it’s the day that separates Libya’s story in two parts: the past with Gaddafi and the start of a new life," said Wafa al-Maki al-Mushri, a 28-year-old government employee in the Libyan capital of Tripoli.
Al-Mushri is among the roughly 2.7 million Libyans who registered to vote, comprising over 80 percent of all eligible voters, according to figures released by the High National Election Commissions (HNEC).
Blueprint for democracy
At stake in Saturday’s national assembly elections, is the future blueprint for democracy in a nation that has been periodically isolated from the international community during the 42 years of Gaddafi’s quixotic, autocratic leadership.
The 200-seat assembly -- or transitional parliament -- will provide a political road map ahead of full-blown parliamentary elections scheduled for 2013.
Until Thursday its duties included drafting a new constitution for the country. But on July 5, the National Transitional Council amended the process, deciding that a committee, to be elected through another direct election, would be in charge of drafting the constitution.
The new assembly will replace the National Transitional Council (NTC) that was set up during the 2011 revolt and recognised as the legitimate representative of the Libyan uprising during the NATO-aided uprising.
“This election can be framed as the second revolution. The NTC was the caretaker government that initially steered the ship and now we’re seeing the second phase of a handover to elected representatives,” said Frederic Wehrey of the Mideast Program at the Washington DC-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But the landmark election also has its discontents and they’re primarily based in eastern Cyrenaica region in Libya – or Barqa, as it’s locally known.
In a region that saw the start of the uprising back in February 2011, public resentment – dubbed “betraying Barqa” by Libya experts - has been mounting amid fears that the Gaddafi-era marginalisation of the oil-rich region will continue.
In the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, cradle of the 2011 uprising, dissatisfaction has been mounting over the allocation of assembly seats based on demographics, which assigned 100 seats to the western Tripolitania region, 60 for Cyrenaica and 40 for the southern Fezzan region.
In the lead-up to Saturday’s polls, federalists demanding regional autonomy have called for a boycott of the vote.
Meanwhile, small but potentially lethal pockets of militant Islamists remain opposed to the democratic process and have declared the elections “haram” – or forbidden in Arabic.
But the 2012 campaign has also seen newly-formed Islamist parties - such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Development Party (JDP) - enter Libya’s political fray after decades of severe repression under Gaddafi.
Additional troops for election day security
In the lead-up to Saturday’s poll, scattered attacks on election centres predominantly in the Cyrenaica region have raised security concerns among ordinary Libyans and international observers.
On July 1, armed men ransacked election offices in Benghazi in a brazen show of force. Days later, a fire destroyed election material - including ballot boxes and papers - at an election centre in the eastern city of Ajdabiya. Police are investigating the fire as an arson attack.
Fighting has also erupted in some hill towns in western Libya and the sandy southern region between ethnic groups or between regional militias that have gained power in the post-Gaddafi era.
Amid tightened security measures, the interior ministry has enlisted 45,000 members of the Supreme Security Committee to ensure the safety of polling stations across 72 constituencies.
Libya’s fledgling army has also mobilised 13,000 troops to support interior ministry forces to implement election day security plans.
The failure of the National Transitional Council (NTC) to disarm the militias that helped topple Gaddafi has been severely criticised by Libyans and international observers.
It is hoped that the country’s first legitimately elected national body which will emerge from Saturday’s vote will be able to address these and other critical issues confronting Libya today.