Libyans vote for their place in history

Some security problems in the east, but scenes of jubilation in capital and elsewhere as voters declare determination to rebuild nation in the first elections since the demise of Qaddafi.

Voters queued up at polling stations across Libya keen to take part in the country's first national election after more than four decades of dictatorship.
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TRIPOLI // Forming orderly queues and dipping their fingers in indigo ink, Libyans joyously took their place in history yesterday, voting in the first elections since an uprising overthrew Muammar Qaddafi last year.

Scattered security problems across the country closed some polling stations, but election officials reported a high turnout and there was an electric atmosphere in the capital, with crowds dancing in the squares despite soaring temperatures.

After a turbulent 17 months since demonstrations began against the 42-year rule of Qaddafi, many hope that the vote marks the beginning of a new normality.

"We want demobilisation and stability," said Ayssa Omar, voting in the Abu Salim district of Tripoli. "We want to get security back and we really want to rebuild Libya again - to move on."

Like many people, Mr Omar had cast a vote for an individual and for a party, according to the complex system being used to elect a 200-seat General National Congress. He had chosen an individual candidate whom he knew personally.

In a country with a population hovering around six million, voting seemed to be an intensely local affair, with decisions made on the basis of relationships and reputation more than association with any of the newly formed Libyan political entities.

At some polling stations, people brought sweets, tea and water to voters as they waited in the heat, and many people said that they had studied with their chosen candidate, or knew their family or had heard from friends that this was a good choice.

"Really, I'm feeling happy, because I'm choosing the person who's leading the country," said Ali Omeiri, 35, after he had voted. "I'm voting for a person based on his religion, who graduated from university. He was studying with me and now he teaches the Quran to children. He's a good person."

In Tripoli, Libyan flags fluttered from cars, songs blared from mosques and a mixture of the militiamen who fought the war last year and the newly formed government security forces were busier helping the elderly into the polling station than fighting off attackers.

But other parts of the country faced problems from disgruntled armed factions who opposed the election and attempted to sabotage polling stations. In the east of Libya, neglected under Qaddafi, resentment has simmered among some people who claim that not enough seats were allotted to eastern representatives in the new congress.

Gunmen associated with eastern federalist movements have carried out a number of raids on electoral offices in the past weeks, stealing and burning ballot papers and breaking equipment.

Spokesmen for the electoral committee told reporters in Tripoli that more than 100 polling stations had been closed due to security concerns, and local media reported that a van full of ballot papers had been attacked on the way to the eastern town of Brega, postponing the vote there.

An anti-election protester was shot dead in Ajdabiya in the country’s east yesterday when he tried to steal a ballot box from a polling station.

It was the first death reported on the day of Libya’s first free national poll in 60 years. Ajdabiya has been a focus of protests against the election by easterners who want more autonomy for their region.

“Three men in a car were trying to threaten the voting process in one of the polling stations,” the deputy interior minister Omar Al Khadrawi told a news conference in Tripoli.

Mr Khadrawi said a local security guard ran after the car and shot at it, killing one person and injuring two others inside.

But in the city of Benghazi, jubilant crowds gathered in public squares with men dancing and women giving out sweets, as people insisted on voting.

"Last night there were concerns about security but it made people more likely to vote. People are insisting on voting," said Munir Al Akari, a 20-year-old who has campaigned actively for the Justice and Development party, which has strong ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

"They are all celebrating and across the beach here. It's crazy with all the horns and cars flashing," he said. "It seems like after 43 years, people finally breathed." If the 120 seats reserved for individuals are likely to be selected on the basis of personal relationships, people said that they were voting for the 80 seats allotted to political entities according to more nebulous feelings of patriotism or religion.

In a country where no one has voted in more than 40 years, analysts struggle to say whether the national tendency toward conservative Islam will result in a strong showing for an Islamist party, such as the ones that have grown in influence in the region.

The 80 seats are likely to be dominated by coalitions including the Justice and Development party and the National Forces Alliance, endorsed by the former prime minister Mahmoud Jibril. The Al Wattan group, staunch Islamists associated with former militia leader Abdulhakim Belhaj and a revamped version of long-term Qaddafi opponents, the National Front, are also likely to win several seats.

The mandate of the government is limited - its main job is to oversee a constitution. Elections under more permanent electoral rules are due to happen next year. Although some voters are aware of this, they recognised their first poll as a historic day.

"The National Congress don't really have a big chance. Their task is not really complicated," said Sufian Souessi, 40, after voting in Tripoli. "They don't have time to improve health care and education."

He said he felt that the public information campaign on elections and candidates had been lacking, and people were not well-informed.

Despite the limits and flaws he saw in Libya's historic election, Mr Souessi took time in the baking heat to pose for a photograph, inked finger held aloft, to post on his Facebook page.

"I'm so happy," he said.