BENGHAZI, Libya — Libya’s first elections following the 42-year rule by former dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi were met with jubilation Saturday rather than the feared bloodshed from Gaddafi loyalists and the Eastern cities calling for federalism, as an estimated 1.6 million Libyans went to the polls for the first time in almost five decades.
Security forces, government officials and voters had feared violent protests, particularly in the Eastern city of Benghazi where hundreds opposed the upcoming elections calling for more seats for the eastern region and a federal system that would give them greater independence from the west. But attempts at sabotage on the day did not stop millions from casting their votes.
“I can’t describe the feeling,” said Abdul Hameed Mosmari and stood in a long queue with his 4-year-old son at the Bukhr voting station in Benghazi. “This is the first time I have felt this way. Today our revolution is a success. The future from here on for my country will just get better and better.”
Outside groups of supporters gathered chanting pro-election slogans and waving banners. One women’s sign, a twist on the call made by revolutionary fighters during the uprising last year, read, “We will never surrender. We will vote or die.”
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Across town in the area of Hadaidek, would-be voters met a hostile greeting as federalist supporters blocked two polling stations, burning ballot forms and voting boxes.
“Federalism is the logical choice for Libya,” said militia commander Erheem Khamis as his fellow protesters chanted waving guns and fists at the line of traffic attempting to pass by. “Many model democratic countries like the USA have successful federal systems, but the National Transitional Council dictators are making this decision without asking the people. This is dirty politics so we will not support this election. We are not asking for segregation from the West. We are just asking for what is logical.”
In an interview prior to the election, Abdul al-Bast, head of Benghazi’s security Intelligence and a supporter of a federal system in Libya explained the complaints of many Benghazians who were calling for extra seats in the National Congress.
Al-Bast said traditionally Libya is split into three parts: Fezzan in the south, the greater Tripoli region and the eastern region of Barqa (Cyrenaica) of which the capital is Benghazi. He argued each region should have an equal number of seats regardless of population.
“All people would accept any election decision made in this way at this time,” he said. “But the NTC they did things differently. They took 100 from Tripoli, 60 from Barqa and 48 from the South. It is not fair, but they say it is fair because in Tripoli region there are too many people and in the other regions less. But Barqa is a large territory and the others are small and at the same time all the oil is here.”
Al-Bast voiced grave concerns that disagreements over election policy would lead to bloodshed but said his security forces were working around the clock guarding polling stations day and night to prevent it.
In Hadaidek, the federalists celebrated their minor victory over election supporters. Periodically, cars carrying new ballot boxes seized from other areas would arrive to joyful cheers. The crowd would frantically rip up the contents, spreading the paper through the streets like confetti or burning the pieces on a small bonfire in the middle of the square. Ballot boxes were ripped apart in a frenzy before being adding to the flames, but the violence remained relatively contained with some minor clashes occurring between pro election drivers and angry members of the mob.
“The country has been sold to Qatar and the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Nassar Kafir, a militia commander standing guard at the closed school grounds that were to be a polling station. “We do not believe in these elections. If we are standing on the side of justice, even if we lose we can still be proud of taking a stand for our beliefs and our rights.”
Kafir said although his militia group has many heavy weapons at their disposal it was not their intention to resort to violence.
Not all shared the same resolve.
“We will not stop until our demands are met. We have forces standing by,” said protester Faithi Badri. Protesters claimed Gaddafi had built up Tripoli, neglecting Benghazi and the East. The federal system for which they ask would give Benghazi semi autonomy over a region stretching from the oil rich area of Sirte back to the Egyptian border. 80% of the countries known oil reserves are contained in this region.
By the end of voting at 8 p.m. on Saturday, Benghazi had seen three deaths in relation to the elections.
“Compared to our expectations these results are incredible,” said Jamal Bennor, coordinator of justice for Benghazi and local council member. “We did not believe these elections would pass easily. We were nervously collecting information from all areas. By midday we realized we were going to pass. Normal citizens had began guarding the station themselves – that was something truly exceptional.”
Benghazi was the first city to rise up and gain independence from the Gaddafi regime. The current ruling body, the National Transitional Council, was subsequently formed by officials largely based in the Eastern zone.
“Benghazi has suffered for the last 100 years. We are still suffering. We sacrificed our martyrs and they don’t give us anything,” said Anas Mogharbi as ballots continued to burn behind him.
But these small successes of election opponents were not enough to dampen the spirit of first time voters.
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“I’m so optimistic!” said Salwa Fawzi El-Deghali, one of the only female members of the NTC council after casting her vote. “Look at all these people who have come out to protect the ballot points. We are so proud of them. Today was a lesson in democracy – you cannot just take a weapon and make demands.”
El-Deghali spoke of this “historic moment” as she joined a group of smiling women among the election supporters, holding a sign that read, “You have the right to vote, but you do not have the right to stop us from voting.”
In other areas, reports of minor clashes and destruction of electoral materials filtered in including one death and two injuries in the nearby city of Ajdabiya. Overall the elections appeared to be a success. Those who refused to take part in the process were left behind as the new Libya took a huge step forward.
“Our next challenge is to see if people and the parties accept the results,” Bennor said as the vote counting continued Saturday evening with early results indicating a landslide victory to Mahmoud Jabril, leader of the National Alliance party.
“We need to now make agreements between all parties and move forward together as we enter this new era in Libya.”