1 person killed as violence flares during Libyan election
Libyans voted Saturday in an election that will select members of a new congress, in some areas braving gunfire and simmering violence in their determination to participate in politics for the first time in decades.
The New York Times
BENGHAZI, Libya — Libyans voted Saturday in their first election in more than 40 years, in some places braving sporadic gunfire and threats of violence in their determination to conceive a new nation after the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi.
One person was killed and two wounded in a gunbattle between security forces and anti-election protesters in the eastern city of Ajdabiya, according to the head of the election commission. Nouri al-Abari said the polling center targeted by the protesters was later reopened and voting commenced normally.
"We will vote for the fatherland whether there is shooting or not," said Naema el Gheryiene, 55, fixing a designer veil over her hair as she walked to a polling station in an upscale neighborhood here shortly after a gunman in a passing car sprayed bullets into the air. "Whoever dies for their country is a martyr, and even if there are explosions, we are going to vote."
The shooting in the capital of the country's eastern region came mostly from protesters hoping to stop the vote. They fear that the new 200-member congress it will elect might favor the more populous West around Tripoli and allow it to dominate the writing of a constitution. In recent days, protesters have attacked polling stations and burned ballots here and in other eastern cities.
By midmorning Saturday, about 100 men armed with rifles, machetes and rocket-propelled grenades had stormed at least one polling place, emerging with at least seven red-topped translucent ballot boxes and stacks of voter rolls that they brandished as trophies.
But the interim authorities of the self-appointed National Transitional Council had vowed to push ahead with the vote despite concerns about violence. The officials hope that even a flawed election will give a new government the legitimacy needed to impose the rule of law on fractious militias of former rebels that still dominate the country.
Indeed, after a two-week campaign dominated by tribal loyalties and all but devoid of policy debate, the real contest Saturday was not so much between candidates as over the credibility of the vote.
By midday, polls had opened as promised in most precincts around the country, and voters in the major coastal cities of Tripoli, Misrata and Benghazi paraded their cars through the streets, honking and flashing victory signs in celebration.
"The situation is beyond description," said Hamza el Shaybani, a militia leader in a working-class Tripoli neighborhood, Abu Salim, that was a stronghold of support for Gadhafi. His fears of armed attacks on the polling places had not materialized — the only fight that broke out was unrelated to the elections — and in one polling station, 1,115 Libyans had voted in the first two hours, he said in amazement.
The Transitional Council has vowed to step down once the new congress picks a prime minister. How much of the country succeeded in voting was far from clear. Before Saturday, the authorities had abandoned efforts to hold elections in the Southern region around the city of Kufra because of clashes between tribal groups.
In the Western mountains, fighters from the town of Zintan recently waged a weeklong attack on rivals from the Mashashiya tribe that left more than 120 dead, according to local estimates, and it was unclear whether the tensions between rival tribes might impede the voting. For reasons of safety, most international election monitors remained confined to the major cities along the coast.
In Bani Walid, the last bastion of opposition to the revolution and the ancestral seat of Libya's largest tribe, the Warfalla, the interim authorities were unable to ascertain the fairness or accuracy of the vote because the local tribal leaders have barred government officials from entering.
Opponents of the vote in the East claimed Saturday that their attacks on polling facilities had prevented voting in the city of Ajdabiya and as many as a dozen nearby towns. But whether the polls stayed closed could not be confirmed.
Eastern critics of the election said they did not trust the National Transitional Council or the planned national congress, which is to be composed of about 100 members from the West around Tripoli, 60 from the East, and 40 from the sparsely populated South. Nor did they credit the recent decrees of the Transitional Council — meant to calm fears in the east — that the new congress would no longer be in charge of writing the constitution.
According to the plan adopted just two days before the vote, a second election would choose a small panel of 60 to write the document, and the members would be equally divided among the regions. But some candidates for the planned congress have said they will overturn the decree, saying voters are electing them to oversee the constitution.
Material from The Associated Press was included in this report.