Libyans voted on 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 Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
“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 shortly after a gunman in a passing car had 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 here in the capital of the country’s eastern region came mostly from protesters worried that the more populous west around Tripoli would dominate the new national congress and the writing of a constitution. In recent days, protesters have attacked polling stations and burned ballots here and in other eastern cities. On Friday night, they downed a Libyan Air Force helicopter carrying voting supplies, killing an election official. By midmorning on Saturday, about a hundred men armed with rifles, machetes and rocket-propelled grenades had stormed at least one polling place here, emerging with at least seven red-topped translucent ballot boxes and stacks of voter rolls that they brandished as trophies.
“It is still early — this is after just one hour,” a triumphant attacker declared as they began to debate which polling place to go to next.
But the interim authorities of the self-appointed Transitional National Council had vowed to push ahead with the vote despite concerns about violence. The officials hope that even a flawed and incomplete election will give a new government the legitimacy needed to impose the rule of law on the militias of former rebels dominating 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 Saturday 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 Colonel Qaddafi. 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 Libyan had voted in the first two hours, he said in amazement.
How much of the country succeeded in voting was far from clear. Before Saturday, the authorities had already 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.
On a recent visit, there were few signs of an election: no campaign posters, no campaign events. But on Saturday morning, Mahdi Ziadi, a member of Bani Walid’s governing council, said the vote was going “very well, very peacefully,” and predicted that a local favorite, Salem Ahmer, would win.
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.
As soon as the polls opened here in Benghazi, armed protesters opposing the vote began gathering at a traffic circle, which has been the site of previous demonstrations. The old flag of the Eastern province, Cyrenaica, flew above the new Libyan flag over a moment at the center.
Demonstrators said they did not trust the current Transitional National Council or the planned national congress, which is to be composed of about hundred members from the populous 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 that a second election would chose a small panel of 60 equally divided among the regions. Some candidates for the planned congress have already vowed to overturn it.
“We are not against voting, but it should be fair to all Libyans,” a civil engineer, Khalid Assubihi, 49, said. “We had a bad dictator for 40 years. We are afraid for our children if there is no justice.” And he hinted of violence: “When the government is pushing people, you can’t predict what will happen.”
A young man nearby was less equivocal: “Either kill them or kill us.”
“Maybe there is a new revolution,” his friend said.
“We want things to be peaceful,” an older man said, with a shrug.
Moments later, a car with a speaker drove by urging people to vote, and demonstrators began hammering it with rocks and sticks. Then they were off, firing riffles wildly into the air and raising rocket-propelled grenades to their shoulders as they stormed into a polling station.
No one appeared injured, and 15 minutes later the raiders were ripping open the ballot boxes.
Some emerged calling for the mob to storm another polling place at the nearby Yousef Bouker School. But it was more heavily guarded, with truck-mounted artillery, and when the voters heard approaching gunfire they too sprang into action.
About three dozen unarmed men lined up across the street to form a barrier blocking the road from the direction of the mob. “Weapons in back, and whoever wants to sacrifice himself up the front,” one man shouted as they organized the line.
Waiting in line inside to vote, Badi Mustafa, 58, an oil company employee, said he was not worried about the protests or for that matter who might win the seats in the 200-person congress. “They will all be Libyans. They will work for the future of Libya. Everything will be O.K.”