07.07.12

Libya Votes in First Elections Since Fall of Gaddafi

In a historic election, joyous crowds of Libyans headed to the polls on Saturday for the first time in over 40 years. Jamie Dettmer reports from Tripoli.

Libyans in Tripoli achieved two rare things today. They formed orderly lines, patiently waiting their turn, and they voted for the first time in half a century to choose who governs their country. For some, this democratic moment was almost too much to bear, prompting tears and praise for Allah for bestowing such a gift.

But while voting proceeded calmly in the capital, protesters seeking semi-autonomy for the country’s oil-rich province of Cyrenaica disrupted the voting in eastern Libya by forcing the closure of several polling stations in Ajdabiya, where a depot housing ballot papers was burnt down on Thursday.

Election commission officials also confirmed voting had been disrupted at oasis towns in southeastern Libya, including Jalo and Ojla. Again, federalists caused the problem by preventing a plane carrying polling material from taking off. And Abdeljawad al-Badin, a spokesperson for the self-appointed Cyrenaica Transitional Council, said a boycott was underway in Quba, near the town of Derna, a jihadist stronghold.

Officials closed half-a-dozen polling stations in Benghazi and its outskirts after drive-by shootings. No fatalities were reported. The electoral commission’s chairman told reporters at a press conference that negotiations were underway to try to calm the situation, and if stations had to be closed in eastern Libya there or elsewhere, voters would be allowed to vote again in a few days time.

Interim leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil, who voted in his hometown of Al-Bayda, praised an election worker who was killed on Friday, on the eve of the voting for a 200-member national assembly, when a helicopter transporting election material came under fire and was forced down. He insisted most voting was going well.

“Now we are in paradise. God gives us these things. I’m on top of happiness.”

That was the case in Tripoli. With Koranic chants blasting from nearby mosques, voters forming patiently in lines in dusty yards outside polling stations in the capital remembered rebels who died nine months ago to free Libya from a dictatorship that claimed to represent the people through “direct democracy” but spurned their views and instead imprisoned and tortured them when they spoke out.

“I’m so happy for Libya today,” says Aziza Salama, an English teacher and mother of three children, standing to wait to vote at the Akhlas Center in the area of Al-Adba Sharqiyya. “We have been waiting for this moment. I’m speechless, really. I don’t know what to say.” She added, crying: “Many Libyans died and we are doing all these things because of them. We want to pass this moment in peace. It should be our right to live in a good situation, to have a good education, to have good health. It’s not a dream, it’s our right.”

Men talked in bombastic terms about freedom and democracy. But the fulfillment of practical needs—from providing more jobs to improving the conditions of hospitals to better education—seemed to be foremost in the minds of women voters when asked what they hoped would happen in Libya in the coming months. Women voters were also more talkative and excited, clearly relishing their chance to participate and have their say. Every now and then women would join in a chorus as they came out of polling centers, ululating and flashing purple-colored fingers to show they had voted. But while they participated, voting booths and lines were segregated.

In the district of Zeinab Al-Kruba, a policeman showed a mark of respect to an old lady, Fatma Mohammad Said, kissing her gently on the head after he heard her explain what voting meant to her. Draped in a shawl of black, red, and green—the colors adopted by the revolutionaries and now Libya’s official flag—the 70-year-old cried and said: “Now we are in paradise. God gives us these things. I’m on top of happiness.” A son-in-law was one of the 1,270 prisoners massacred by Gaddafi goons at the prison of Abu Salim in 1996.

But few doubted that the road ahead will be bumpy. At a polling station in the district of Dahra, Ali Abdul Qadir, a fragile 86-year-old who witnessed the Italian and British occupations and voted the last time the country went to the polls in 1963 under King Idriss, said that it remains to be seen whether Libya would be better off. “Nobody knows how things will be. We are waiting to see what happens and whether law and justice and security will be restored.”

Certainly, security and stability have been elusive in the run-up to this election. While Tripoli has enjoyed a spell of calm in the past fortnight, other cities and towns in eastern and southern Libya and in the Nafousa mountains, a two-hour drive from the capital, have been subjected to outbreaks of deadly ethnic and tribal violence and threats to boycott and disrupt the election. On Friday afternoon, gunfire struck a helicopter 60 miles south of Benghazi, killing an election worker—the first shots fired in a campaign launched by federalists seeking semi-autonomy for Cyrenaica. The attack contradicted a promise not to initiate any shooting made by Ahmed Al-Zubair al-Senussi, the longest-serving Gaddafi-era political prisoner who is leading the federalist movement. Earlier in the week he said that it would not be surprising if young men got worked up.

The shooting clearly panicked the government. “There is no security in this country,” lamented Emad El-Sayih, deputy head of the High National Election Commission. His boss, Nuri Alabbar, the commission’s chairman, didn’t go that far at a press conference on the eve of the vote but urged the government to reassure the country, prompting interim prime minister Abdarraheem Alkeeb to organize a late-night news conference of his own at the Rixos Hotel that fell short of reassuring and instead exuded alarm.

The interim government has been trying all week to placate the Benghazi-based federalists, who want Libya split into three semi-autonomous provinces: Tripolitania in the west, Fezzan in the southwest, and Cyrenaica to the east. But they have refused all offers that fail to meet their demands. They argue they will be under-represented in a national assembly that will oversee the drafting of a new constitution and appoint another transitional government. They have refused to budge from their threatened electoral boycott, and the turnout in Libya’s second city, where the revolt against Col. Gaddafi started, will be closely watched. On Thursday, federalist militia forced three eastern oil refineries—in Ras Lanouf, Brega, and Sidr—to shut down in a bid to get the government to cancel the vote.

The shutting down of the oil terminals followed the federalist ransacking on July 1 of the election commission office in Benghazi and the smashing of computers there. According to commission sources, the federalists came very close to derailing the election—if they had managed to destroy voter lists, which have not been backed up anywhere in Libya, then the election would have had to have been postponed.

Earlier this week, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group warned that the electoral process was being “imperiled” by the federalists. And Amnesty International issued a report arguing that Libya had become “increasingly lawless.” In the report detailing dozens of cases of torture and deaths-in-custody, the human rights watchdog criticized the country’s interim leaders for failing to curb hundreds of militias formed during and since the ouster of Col. Gaddafi. “Hundreds of armed militias continue to act above the law, many refusing to disarm or join the national army or police force” and are now “threatening the very future of Libya.”

Will the elections help stabilize the country? The complex voting system decided on is likely, on the face of it, to result in a national assembly where independents representing competing local and city interests are in the majority. There are more than 3,000 candidates: 2,501 are running as individuals and are competing for 120 seats; the remaining 80 seats will be apportioned along national party lines and are being contested by 1,300 candidates from 142 parties.

But what isn’t known is how many individual candidates are disguised party loyalists. Observers believe that the Muslim Brothers—their party is called the Justice and Construction Party—have been more active than the other main parties in packing the individual lists with their loyalists.

Analysts expect three parties to perform especially well when it comes to the party lists: Justice and Construction; Al Watan, an Islamist party led by Abdul Hakim Belhaj, former emir of the now dissolved Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which had ties to Al Qaeda before disavowing Jihadism; and the secular-minded centrist National Forces’ Alliance led by Mahmoud Jibril, which could do especially well in Tripoli.

Jibril, the Muslim Brothers, and Belhaj have been in negotiations ahead of the elections over forming a Muslim Brotherhood-led coalition government, say sources in all three parties. That would mean that all three Arab Spring countries have come out of their revolutions with Islamists at the helm.

Jibril’s centrist National Forces’ Alliance appeared also to be running strongly in Benghazi, according to observers there. Michel Cousins, editor of the Libyan Herald newspaper, predicts it may be the Alliance that emerges with more seats than the Muslim Brothers’ Justice and Construction Party, putting Jibril, who is not standing himself, in the stronger position when it comes to negotiations over the shape of a coalition government.

Sen. John McCain, who came to observe the election and to hold talks with Libyan leaders, said he had encountered tremendous enthusiasm and dismissed Western concerns over an Islamist-led coalition government, if there is one, when asked by The Daily Beast. “The best thing for Libya is not to have Gaddafi murdering his people. I am confident that whatever government is formed will be one the United States can do business with," McCain said.

At a brief press conference, McCain proclaimed the election a success and said it was an example for other Arabs countries to follow: “It is not a perfect election and there have been pockets of violence, but if you look at the overall picture, it has been violence-free. For a first step it has been a success. International observers say it is a good free and fair election.” He acknowledged, however, “there will be enormous problems ahead,” saying that isn’t unusual for a country transitioning from dictatorship to democracy, but he was encouraged by the “enthusiasm of the people and high turnout.”

But turnout wasn’t high uniformly across the country. An election observer reached by phone in Tobruk said that by midday only about 20 percent of voters had voted and that lines had not been long. 

That enthusiasm developed as the day proceeded in Tripoli, with more and more people taking to the streets even as the thermometer rose to more than 109 degrees to wave flags and drive around honking their horns, reliving the ecstatic celebrations that accompanied the fall of Gaddafi.

“Everything is OK,” said Magda Ahmeri, 39, relieved that boycott threats and warnings of violence had not stopped voting from taking place. A mother of three, she said after voting in the district of Faslun in the capital: “Praise be to God we got rid of Gaddafi. Now what we need are jobs, and better school facilities. Without jobs and houses people can’t get married.”