Voters in Libya: Indescribable Joy, “Libya is Free”

Saturday morning, 2.8 million registered voters in Libya went to the polls to choose a parliament for the first time since 1965.

One woman standing in line to vote said she was filled with ‘indescribable joy’ at this opportunity to participate in democracy. A Reuters correspondent tweets about tears in the eyes of women voters; one says “Libya is free.” Some women were wearing Libyan flag scarves on their heads. It should be remembered that thousands of Libyans died making a revolution so this day could come, and over the years thousands of Libyans cycled through Qaddafi’s jails– many of them now feel their sacrifice was worthwhile.

Early reports on Saturday morning indicated that the polling stations opened normally, and satellite television showed people standing peacefully in line, both in Tripoli and in Benghazi, through 10 am. Some reports were that participation was light in Benghazi in the morning).

Aljazeera Arabic reported that the opening voting went calmly in former Qaddafi strongholds like Sirte and Sabha during the first couple of hours. I saw a photo on twitter of proud voters in Tobruk not so far from the Egyptian border in the east.

People in Tripoli tweeted that the lines were unexpectedly long in the morning (suggesting initial high turnout), and volunteers handed out sweets and provided water to the voters. An enthusiastic public was saying “God is great.” People honked their horns in the downtown area around Martyrs’ Square.

There are 3000 candidates for 200 seats in this foundational parliament, and, remarkably, some 500 of them are women. When I was in Benghazi in late May, I interviewed a headmistress of a school who is running for parliament on a relatively secular platform. The welter of candidates is confusing, and the distribution of party and individual seats is confusing. But the level of participation is a promising sign. That so many registered, and so many are running, shows enthusiasm for the process. The Muslim Brotherhood party is expected to do very well, though there is a school of thought that maintains that none of the main parties will get a majority.

In the east, there are small groups who want greater provincial autonomy from Tripoli, who have been making some trouble. On Friday, someone took some shots at a helicopter ferrying voting material to the east, forcing it to land and killing an election worker. A handful of militiamen showed up at refineries in Ras Lanouf and elsewhere, requesting that they be shut down as a protest against continued strong central government. The managers of the refineries complied, to avoid unnecessary trouble (they probably figure than an election protest is unlikely to last much longer than election day). But note that only about 15 armed men are said to have been in the party of protesters at Ras Lanouf. All of this trouble I’ve mentioned has been made by a very small group of people. And, while it is nervous-making to have armed men and mobs acting in these ways, there is less disorder than one might think from these wire service reports. In countries like India, election violence routinely results in deaths.

Mostly what the incidents of disorder show is that the National Transitional Council is not very good at planning out how to deploy its police and military to protect people and official offices. That is why the prospect of an elected prime minister who might be on the ball is attractive.

On the other side of the ledger, on Friday there was a big demonstration of several thousand in front of the courthouse in Benghazi, in favor of national unity. The states’ rights group could only muster 300 for a counter demonstration. Supporters of strong central government said they would not let the minor faction of decentralizers disrupt the vote. Some voters interviewed in Benghazi said that the helicopter incident convinced them to vote against candidates seeking greater states’ rights, so the violence may be backfiring for the decentralizers. (This information is from a fine article in the Libya Herald, which appears not to index; few in the West are mentioning the big pro-government demonstration in Benghazi).

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8 Responses

  1. The dissappointing elections in Egypt have soured the western press on democracy in Arab world, so lack of interest in Libyan elections is understandable.

    20 representatives from each of three regions to write constitution sounds reasonable to me. Maybe the federalists in the east think federalism means they keep all the oil moey.

  2. Democracy is not built in a day. There will be some speed bumps and birth pangs along the way, but I am very high on the propects of Libyan democracy. I think progress will be much smoother than Iraq and Afganistan (obviously) or even Egypt. Do you see any likely major landmines along the way Prof. Cole? If so, what might they be.

  3. Libyan federalism has never been a cause with any support among western “anti-imperialist” leftists, and Gadaffi’s government did everything it could to suppress separatism and federalism.

    However, now that there are Libyan federalists working to undermine the success of the elections and transition to a democratic system, I predict that numerous opponents of the UN mission will suddenly discover the merits of a federated Libya.

    • I’ve seen it with my own eyes, federalists being defended as being “assaulted” by “NATO rebels.” Meanwhile the federalists are responsible for the majority of the violence in the east (responsible for shooting down the helicopter, responsible for shutting down the oil ports, responsible for burning / attacking the Benghazi election post, etc). Just search Google for, “Peaceful Protesters In Benghazi Shot At By Nato Rebels On Election.” It’s hilarious to say the least.

  4. The Libyan people have a fledgling democracy.

    History teaches us that, as in Eastern Europe following the collapse of Soviet Union’s hegemony, that the initial euphoria will give way to reality that a complex restructuring of the government and society itself needs to occur. Remember in Ukraine, the executive director of the State Bar of Michigan was consulted in establishing a criminal justice system in that nation (after the downfall of the Soviet government) compatible with Western standards.

    France, Great Britain, and the U.S. can all be thanked for playing a role in esatblishing a free Libya.

    The Central Intelligence Agency did not need a Phoenix program as in Vietnam, formation of death squads as in El Salvador, or employment of systematic torture to ensure the compliance of the Libyan citizenry with its goals.

    • The Central Intelligence Agency did not need a Phoenix program as in Vietnam, formation of death squads as in El Salvador, or employment of systematic torture to ensure the compliance of the Libyan citizenry with its goals.

      This is mainly the result of the “goals” being different, and actually in line with those of the Libyan people.

      But the CIA isn’t the one with the goals. The CIA is, and has always been, the creature of the White House. Pin Mossedegh on Eisenhower, Operation Phoenix on Johnson and Nixon, the torture manual on Reagan, and the Libya policy on Obama. The CIA wasn’t deciding on those things by itself.

  5. Cool. I didn’t know voting made a nation free. Voting for the lesser of two evils makes one free.

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