Top Ten Surprises on Libya’s Election Day

Most Western reporting on Libya is colored by what is in my view a combination of extreme pessimism and sensationalism. It has been suggested that because most reporters don’t stay there for that long, many don’t have a sense of proportion. It is frustrating to have faction-fighting in distant Kufra in the far south color our image of the whole country. Tripoli, a major city of over 2.2 million (think Houston), is not like little distant Kufra, population 60,000 (think Broken Arrow, OK)!

In the run-up to the elections held on Saturday, a lot of the headlines read ‘Libya votes, on the brink’ or had ‘Chaos’ in the title. But actually, as the Libya Herald reports, the election went very, very well (which did not surprise me after my visit to three major cities there in May-June). The NYT post-election headline of ‘Libyans risk violence to vote’ is frankly ridiculous; in most of the country that simply was not true, though it was true in parts of Benghazi. Even then, how many people died in violence in this election? I count two, but in any case it is a small number. In Tripoli, the election was described as a big family wedding, with lots of loud celebration and tears of joy. Here are the top ten surprises of the election for Libya watchers:

1. Turnout was about 60%, with 1.6 million casting their ballots. This high turnout is especially impressive given how confusing the election procedures were, with 3,000 candidates and only 80 seats out of 200 set aside for political parties (most newly formed and not well known).

2. There was relatively little election violence, certainly compared to South Asia, where election day often entails dozens, sometimes hundreds, of deaths. The Libya Herald piece quotes the High Electoral Commission as saying, “…of 1,554 polling centres across the country, 24 were unable to operate, including two in Kufra, six in Sidra and eight in Benghazi.”

3. The remnants of Qaddafi supporters made no trouble, and many went to vote enthusiastically. One of the many wrong predictions made last year by opponents of the revolution was that after it was over, there would be an Iraq-style pro-Qaddafi resistance. It turns out that Qaddafi wasn’t actually popular, and now that he is gone no one is interested in making trouble in his name.

4. One of the last cities to fall to the revolutionaries was Bani Walid, and it was alleged for a long time after the revolution to be in the hands of Qaddafi loyalists. This allegation was always a vast exaggeration. There were only a few militiamen there, who made demonstrations downtown. In fact, if anything, it was the revolutionary militias that controlled a city that somewhat resented them because of their high-handedness. Luke Harding of The Guardian, who bothered actually to go to Bani Walid, found people there as excited about the elections as elsewhere, and eager to combat their city’s reputation as a refuge of former regime loyalists. 46,000 had registered to vote, out of 85,000 inhabitants– i.e. most of those eligible to vote must have registered.

5. The formerly upscale city of Sirte, which had been seen by the revolutionaries as favored by Qaddafi, and near which he made his last stand, decided not to boycott the vote after all, according both to Agence France Press and to the following:

Rena Netjes ‏@RenaNetjes
Corresp alHurraTV in ‪#Sirte‬: “Turnout 70%, women 35-40%. Ppl very very happy to be able to vote for the 1st time” ‪#Lyelect‬.

There are genuine resentments toward Sirte on the part of the revolutionary cities, and locals complain about discrimination of various sorts. They clearly feel that being well represented in the new parliament is a way of gaining a voice and being reintegrated into the new Libya. It was places like Bani Walid and Sirte from which trouble on election day had been expected, and it did not happen.

6. The Muslim fundamentalist parties that were expected to dominate the new parliament may not do so. First of all, only 80 of the 200 seats are allocated to parties, and the liberal party of former head of Qaddafi’s National Economic Development Board, Mahmoud Jibril, is said to be doing well in early returns and exit polls. Because of the large number of independents and uncertainty with whom they will caucus, predictions about the shape of the government are premature. The West is more secular than the east or the south. In Libya, the remnants of the old regime are called ‘seaweed’ or ‘algae’ (tahallub), i.e. the flotsam left behind when the tide recedes. As in Tunisia and Egypt, there has been a lot of debate around what to do with them. They often have a lot of money, and are regrouping to succeed in the new system. Since a lot of prominent Libyan technocrats had been lured back to the country in the past decade, with Qaddafi’s and his son Saif al-Islam’s attempt to open to the West, leaders like Mahmoud Jibril (al-Warfalli) are considered by some to be leftovers, while others see him as someone who went over to the revolution and served as its first transitional prime minister.

7. Despite the faction-fighting that has plagued some desert cities, such as Zintan and Kufra, in southwest Tripolitania and the Fezzan region of Libya, respectively– its third traditional region after Tripolitania and Cyrenaica– went to the polls quietly and peaceably for the most part. Two of the polling stations in feud-ridden Kufra could not open because of tension. Here’s what my Jabal Nafusa and Fezzan twitter feed looked like:

Women crowds in Zintan for voting
9:16 AM – 7 Jul 12 via Twitter for iPhone ·
22h Libya.elHurra Libya.elHurra ‏@FreeBenghazi

July7: Election observers at a Zintan polling station. Reports of good turnout from women but no pics yet ‪#Libya‬

20h AC Tripolis AC Tripolis ‏@david_bachmann_
Very big crowd in front of voting room for people from ‪#Ghadames‬ – quite noisy, but relaxed ‪#LyElect‬ ‪#gheryan‬ ‪#Libya‬”

8. A big surprise is that what little election day trouble there was came from the East, from the center of the revolution. Thus, small crowds or small militia contingents attacked or tried to attack polling stations in Ajdabiya, Sidra, Ras Lanouf and Benghazi itself. But aside from a few stations in Sidra and 8 in Benghazi, all of them reopened and some stayed open till midnight to make up for having been closed in the morning. In one incident in Benghazi, pro-election crowds actually drove off a group of states’ rights protesters who want decentralization.

9. Women registered to vote, ran for office, and went to the polling stations in surprisingly high numbers. In some small cities, eyewitnesses thought the women’s lines were much longer than those of the men.

10. Among this generation of Libyans, democracy is really, really popular.

22 Responses

  1. It’s good to be on the right side of history. Thanks for following this as well as you have Juan Cole. You’ve taken too much crap from dishonest, lying, neo-Stalinists (if not right wingers in disguise).

    • “You’ve taken too much crap from dishonest, lying, neo-Stalinists (if not right wingers in disguise).”

      There are enough true neo-Stalinists on the extreme Left around (evidenced by comments on this forum over time) without implicating “right-wingers in disguise.”

  2. Dear Mr. Juan Cole,
    Thank you for this article. I live in Benghazi and am very happy to see an article that accurately reflects what I have seen here.

  3. thanx for this article..n we r proud of our selves

  4. Yes, well, it’s not a surprise to those of us who read Professor Cole’s newsletter: indeed, it was due to him that I started reading the sensationalist headlines about the possibility of violence in the Libyan election with the skepticism they deserved. And even when the New York Times does report on the overwhelmingly successful and peaceful Libyan vote, which had quite minimal incidence of violence, they still push the “party line” on how to view the “Arab spring”: that is, at best an ambiguous good that could just as easily go in the “wrong” direction.

  5. I think that because things went so badly when the US tried to manufacture elections in Iraq:

    (a) US media expects everyplace Arab to be like this.

    (b) Far too much of the audience hates seeing that Arabs can do it better without us.

    So now the meme is stuck too deep to debunk. Sorry, just a whole other area of reality that is permanently off limits to the American mind.

  6. 60% is actually quite a low turnout, similar to Egypt in its first round. Given that roughly 3 million decided to register it makes me wonder why they did not chose to vote. I have also not seen any reporting on what happened in the Jebel Nefusa region.

    I admit to being surprised that Jibril’s coalition is doing well, he did nothing during the fight except live in Doha.

    The MB were never going to do well in the West, they never had any strength there; totally different from Tunisia and Egypt.

    It will be interesting to see how this Congress picks a PM and gets the 2/3rds vote necessary to legitimise the gov’t and cabinet.

    Regional tentions are alive and well and the militias are still a factor.

    What happens to all those who are part of the NTC?

    Many challenges lie ahead…

  7. The supporters of the old regime didn’t boycott the elections, as the Sunni Iraqis did in 2005. That’s going to make it awfully difficult for those seeking to discredit the new government – both inside Libya, and among the NTC’s western critics.

  8. Nice article, few actually get it when it comes to Libya (maybe because it was away from the media light for so long), as a Libyan I keep reading non-sense and many neo-Stalinists who simply keep lying as Josh Cryer said.

  9. Thanks Mr Cole.
    Your article perfectly reflects the true Libyan post Gaddafi political scenario and election day mood.
    We were always sorry to be portrayed as a country in disarray . That the criminal clashes in Kufra , Sebha , Ras Ejdir , Msaed are described as tribal clashes when in reality these are criminal / turf control to rob the subsidised libyan gasoline and food. I would not wonder to see Chicago or Medellin Mafias fighting it out on the borders of Libya to rob the 5 Billion bounty. Libya will be the beacon of DEMOCRACY for the Arab World to follow.

  10. Dear Mr. Cole,

    The article reflects the reality of Libya very well, the only point I disagree with is that the protesters who were driven off in Benghazi,didn’t want really decentralization, they are using it as an excuse to create chaos, all Libyans and especially from the East and South want decentralization for they are the regions that suffered the most during the old regime.

  11. The best days ever <3 All libyans are extremely Happy for voting for Libya's Bright Future.. wishing nothing but the best for our dear country ! Godbless all our Libyan People. .

  12. Thanks Mr. Cole,
    I’m living in Benghazi and dip my finger in the ink at ballot points like most of the Libyans of goodwill did. The situation described by media in the east of Libya, despite the occasional episodes to disrupt and sabotate the elections by sigle individuals or small groups of separatists, had been a big joy and happy party for all Benghazino’s cheering and chanting for the wedding of the revolution to the new democratic course of the country. I’m now more optimistic than ever before. The interest of some will not overwhelm the desire of progress and stability of the very large majority of the citizens. Libya is writing “radically” a new page of history of the Arab world against any prevision surprising the scheptics.
    Who ever party is going to win the elections the real winners are the Libyans !

  13. I’m an Iraqi citizen living in Benghazi, Libya. I was so confused between what I see in real life here and what I read, hear or see on the media. I was afraid that the latter would be right and that really frightened me. thanks God it turned out that all those “reports” were wrong and mainly seemed from imaginations and skepticism. I’m very happy for Libya and I believe that it will be the first and true translation the so called ” Arab Spring “.

  14. It’s not a surprise for me as a Libyan. Liba is always a pacific country.. libyans will forget the past and look towards future

  15. It’s a good review of a great election. As a witness to the early uprisings in the Cyraenica area, when I worked as a Professor of English in Garyounis University till last yearh 2011, I would call it a grand finale of a massive uprising. Kudos to Libyans!

  16. Thanks Mr Cole,
    You portrayed it right.
    Can’t describe the joy as Libyan woman to see so many women queing for the vote … happy, radiant and helpful. I lived and sensed same unity among Libyans as lived throughout the revolution.
    Libya is unique and “From Libya comes the New”.
    Libyans lived a true revolution…too many Libyans died martyrs for “A Democratic Country”.
    Foreign media to report as well the positive which overwhelmes by far the negative negligible controlled incidents in a vast area like Libya.

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