Libyans vote in first free elections in decades


TRIPOLI, Libya — Naima Naggar stood in a Tripoli polling station Saturday, her index finger stained with indelible ink as she voted in Libya’s first free elections in decades hoping to heal tribal divisions and bring this battered nation closer to democracy.

She and other Libyans voted in high spirits to move beyond last year’s civil war and the late Moammar Kadafi’s 42-year repressive rule. Yet distrust and tension hang over the country, which has been marked by lawlessness and political schisms fueled by heavily armed militias.

“I’m very happy. But now we have to start rebuilding our country,” said Nagger, 46. “We need education and healthcare.... We need law here, because, during Kadafi’s time, it was his law only.”

Libyans are choosing a 200-member national assembly, aimed at bringing together the country’s disparate ethnic and tribal factions. The assembly will act as a temporary body, selecting a prime minister and Cabinet and paving the way for parliamentary elections next year.

“Most Libyans support this election. They see it as an important step,” said Ahmed Bealy, who was supervising the voting in central Tripoli. He said as many as 400 people voted in the first hour at his polling station. “Most people feel that we have to get on with building a new Libya.”

But the nation’s fissures, especially around the eastern city of Benghazi, which was the bastion of the uprising against Kadafi, were clear and dangerous.

The east was marginalized under Kadafi, and many fear the new national assembly — the east will have fewer seats than the west — and the future constitution will favor the west. Protesters in the east burned voting papers amid reported attacks on polling stations. An election worker was killed Friday night when militiamen shot down a helicopter carrying voting supplies.

Tribal warfare in the southern town of Kufra has become so fierce that election observers were forced to stay away during Saturday’s vote. But in Tripoli, the capital, cars filled the central square, horns blaring in celebration. Libyan flags fluttered, waved from rooftops and from windows, and by gathering crowds.

In the suburb of Souk Juma, a boy pushed his father’s wheelchair into a polling station. Cameras clicked as men struck poses for foreign journalists and called for freedom and democracy and liberty. “God is great,” they shouted.

Far from these scenes, on the fringes of Tripoli, Noudeen Rawadan stood quietly at a polling station at a camp for internally displaced people.

The 49-year-old hoped the national assembly would help him and the other ethnic Tawerghans stranded at the disused naval academy for almost a year . Children, holding hands, walked on the barren, scorched earth. Their town, Tawergha, was razed last year by militias accusing them of fealty to Kadafi.

“We need someone to help take us back to our homes,” he said. “We want protection. We want our prisoners released. NATO forces supported the people who displaced us, so if the government does not help us, we will have to go to the international community.”

The interim Transitional National Council brushed aside fear of violence to hold Saturday’s vote. But it is difficult to predict the makeup of the national assembly, which many Libyans hope will provide services and impose order on the militias that hold sway over much of this oil-rich nation of about 6 million people.

A leading contender appears to be Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance, which appeals to secularists and moderate Islamist sensibilities. But the elections, similar to last year’s insurgency, have acquired an Islamist bent. The well-organized Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Construction Party seems likely to win a sizable share of the vote. It is less certain how hard-line Islamist elements, particularly Abdelhakim Belhaj’s Watan party, will fare.

Campaign posters dominated Tripoli’s streets in the days before the vote. The faces of women on numerous posters had been blotted out with black spray-paint.

“Women should not be going for these kinds of jobs,” said 63-year-old Abdulsalam Jamali, a U.S.-educated engineer. “The Libyan people are more reserved than this.”

One campaign poster showed a man smiling. Two women stood next to him, both their faces torn out, leaving eerie and gaping holes.

Johnson is a special correspondent.

Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.