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.