Polls Close in First Libyan Election in Over 40 Years

As the polls closed in the first Libyan election in more than 40 years, jubilation erupted, even as its leaders faced a turbulent road ahead.

James Lawler Duggan / MCT-Getty Images

Libya’s capital came alive tonight with scenes and sounds reminiscent of the ecstatic celebrations marking the ouster of longtime dictator Col. Muammar Gaddafi nine months ago.

Roads into Martyrs’ Square were gridlocked within an hour of polls closing. Every driver, as thousands of cars crawled forward or sat motionless, blasted away on their horns. Near the square, fireworks shot into the sky.

Delight mounted as the day unfolded, as Libyans began to take in their “democratic moment.” Many expressed sheer pleasure at exercising their right to vote—and also seemed a little amazed. “We never imagined we would ever be doing this,” said Aishe Liab, a social worker. Speaking at a polling station in the district of Fashlun, where lines formed quickly in the morning when the polls opened at 8 a.m., she said she had been up all night unable to sleep.

But delight was also mixed with relief. Libyans had feared these elections would be derailed by widespread bloodletting. They worried if that happened their divided country would fracture some more, making it even harder to put back together again.

“So it went quite well,” remarked political exile Abdul Rahman El Mansouri, the deputy head of the Warriors’ Affairs Commission and an adviser to the outgoing interim government. He burst into a smile. “Now we have just to worry about something going amiss with the transporting of the ballot boxes.”

Even the normally dry chairman of the country’s election commission, Nuri al-Abbar, looked relieved. At a press conference at the Rixos hotel in the evening he remarked on how the elections proceeded in “positive manner much more than we expected.” Predictably, Sen. John McCain dropped by, shuttled in by helicopter from Tripoli airport—the same airport that only last month was occupied by a disgruntled militia, prompting a firefight with other rebel militias loyal to the government.

Standing before an array of Libyan flags, he pronounced to a huddle of journalists that the elections had been “an example for other Arab countries to follow.” He added: “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.”

The international observers he cited—the European Union, Arab League, and the Carter Center, which all had monitoring and assessment teams in the field—will speak for themselves on Monday when they announce their preliminary findings. And it may be that there are more problems than have emerged so far.

A protester was killed and two wounded in a firefight between anti-election demonstrators and security forces in the eastern city of Ajdabiya earlier in the day, according to Nouri al-Abari, the head of the election commission. He said the polling center targeted by the protesters was later reopened.

Little news was available from the south of the country, where Arabs, Tuaregs, and Tebu tribesmen have clashed frequently over the past few months. None of the international observers sent teams to the south because of security concerns, so it is hard to gauge what happened in towns like Kufra, where the Tebu had threatened to boycott the first Libyan elections in half a century.

And the election wasn’t incident or violence-free. On Friday an election worker was killed and another injured near Benghazi when a helicopter ferrying election materials and ballot papers was shot up and forced to land. Protesters seeking semi-autonomy for the country’s oil-rich province of Cyrenaica disrupted the voting by forcing the closure of at least half a dozen polling stations in Ajdabiya, 60 miles south of Benghazi, where a depot housing ballot papers was burnt down on Thursday, requiring authorities to rush replacements printed in Dubai.

It was unclear also last night why 101 polling stations in Benghazi had opened late. Election commission officials talked about ballot papers arriving late; other government officials said security concerns had caused the delay. Anti-election protesters in Benghazi set fire to hundreds of ballot slips after looting at least one polling station. There were reports of drive-by shootings outside several polling stations, although no fatalities were reported.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

Voting was disrupted also 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. Armed men also stopped voters from casting their ballots in the port town of Ras Lanuf.

While the worst some had predicted for these elections didn’t come to pass, there remain signs that the next government will have a tough road ahead, a point McCain conceded by admitting, “There will be enormous problems along the way.”

The strong federalist movement of the east is likely to continue to challenge Tripoli. The 200-strong national assembly for which voters have cast their ballots will have little time to prove itself, both when it comes to how it placates Benghazi, where the revolt against Gaddafi started, and also how it deals with broader security challenges.

Late on Thursday night the outgoing National Transitional Council rushed through a law that would deprive the new assembly of one of its most important functions aside from appointing a new government—namely to set up a 60-member body to write a new constitution. It decided, in a bid to placate Benghazi on the eve of today’s election, to have regional elections instead to choose the drafters. It isn’t clear whether that change is binding on the assembly, but either way it is likely to delay Libya deciding on a new constitution.

The wider security challenges are daunting. Earlier this week, Amnesty International highlighted them with a hard-hitting report that argued 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 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.”

The new national assembly and the government it appoints will have a major headache in trying to curb the militias and persuade young fighters to disarm and integrate—there are believed to be more than 200,000 of them now, more than fought in the revolution to rid Libya of Gaddafi. For that the new government will need to come up with jobs.

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. More than 3,000 candidates stood in today’s elections. Just more than 2,500 ran as individuals and competed for 120 seats; 1,300 party candidates contended for the remaining 80 seats.

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

Analysts expect three parties to do well when the results start being declared next week: 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, sources in all three parties say. That would mean that all three Arab Spring countries have come out of their revolutions with Islamists at the helm.

McCain 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,” he said.

That sentiment was certainly shared by many in Tripoli as they voted.

“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 children, 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.”

Outside the polling stations, 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.

The delight at the polling stations and relief were moving to witness.

But not all were so happy. At a polling station in Janzour, half an hour from the center of Tripoli, refugees from the town of Tawargha now housed in the old naval academy in appalling conditions spoke of their fears. They voted in the elections for an individual candidate. Accused of collaborating with Gaddafi during the uprising, the Tawarghans were forced from their homes by militias from nearby Misrata and even in the naval academy they have not been safe from reprisal. In February, gunmen stormed the camp and killed seven. The 2,237 refugees in the camp survive on food handouts from charities.

“We voted to have a say,” said one old man who did not want to be named. “We would like to go home not tomorrow but right now.”

That will only come to pass when the new government curbs the power of the militias and starts the process of healing and reconciling.