The Middle East Channel

Benghazi needs a hug

Benghazi needs a hug

Shouts of "Allahu akbar" rang out Friday night in Benghazi, as Libya lost to Morocco on penalty kicks. Saturday brought a loud night of celebratory honking and gunfire as the polls for the first national election in 60 years closed.

I was in Benghazi observing the election for the Carter Center, which mounted a limited mission due to security concerns. It has issued its preliminary assessment. These are my own views, and not those of the Carter Center.

The Libyans are electing what they call a General National Congress (GNC), which will form the country’s first elected government and — according to a last-minute decision — preside over regional elections for members of a constitution-drafting committee. Eighty seats in the GNC will be assigned proportionally from closed party lists, with men and women alternating on the ballot. One hundred twenty seats will go to individual candidates. This election will end Libya’s self-appointed revolutionary regime, the National Transitional Council (NTC), which led the political side of the February 2011 revolt against Muammar al-Qaddafi.

The July 7 election wasn’t perfect. Several people were killed in the eastern part of Libya, which saw tension and violence. But the elections came off smoothly in the west and much of the south, and better than feared in the east. This was good reason to celebrate. We will not know complete final results for several days, perhaps even a week, but the tallying is proceeding rapidly in an effort I visited at an army base on the way to Tripoli airport.  

Who would resist elections in a country so hungry for self-governance and freedom of expression? Extremist Islamist groups with limited resonance in the broader population opposed this spring’s municipal elections in several communities, including Benghazi. In the weeks since, what Libyans call the "Federalist" opposition has grown both more vocal and more violent. They want to see Cyrenaica (or Barqa, as the Federalists prefer to call it) become autonomous, along with Fezzan in the south and Tripolitania in the west. They sought more seats in the GNC for Cyrenaica, as well as a constitution-drafting committee chosen regionally. Tribal and ethnic divisions are also at work. While proof is scarce, it is widely believed Qaddafi remnants in Cairo and elsewhere funded youthful protests and violence against the GNC elections, in an effort to undermine a democratic revolution.

Voting stations in Benghazi were generally well organized, well staffed, and orderly. Voters’ names were usually posted outside polling stations, queuing was well-managed, the check-in process comparing voter cards with registration lists was meticulous, the ballots were stamped and distributed properly, provision was made for secret voting, fingers were inked, and the ballot boxes were clearly visible. There were observers present more often than not, many serving for individual candidates as well as political parties but most (more than 2,000 in Benghazi) from nongovernmental organizations, including the Libyan Women’s Association, the Association for International Law, the Libyan Association for Election Observers and others. There was little sign of campaigning, intimidation or other attempts to influence voters inside (or immediately outside) polling centers. Staff was well acquainted with their responsibilities and properly identified with badges as well as white plastic smocks. Many polling stations posted their instructions on how they were to be set up and choreographed.

The second polling center I visited was in Gimeenis, on the periphery of Benghazi. Battles were fought nearby during the seesaw war with Qaddafi’s forces. An attack on one of the polling centers there the previous day prompted the High National Election Commission to consolidate three polling centers into one. This had been accomplished by 10:30 a.m.. Voting was proceeding without a hitch. Sufficient materials had somehow been made available. A grenade attack on the new, consolidated polling center caused no hesitation. The polling center courtyard was crowded with men milling about, proudly defiant of the violence. Women were ululating upstairs.

Voters in Benghazi were well aware of the anti-election Federalist demonstrations and violence in the city and areas surrounding. They voted with determination and commitment in significant numbers. At the end of the day, the men’s polling stations I visited were recording 75 to 85 percent of registered voters voting, before the police came in to vote after the centers closed. Revolutionary brigades who fought Qaddafi’s forces, now at least in part organized under the "Supreme Security Council," participated in providing security in Benghazi, but they were part of the security problem in Ajdabiya, where some tribally-based militias opposed the voting.

We visited one polling center in a Tuarga displaced persons’ camp and one in a facility for disabled people. The Tuarga, black people whom the revolutionaries of neighboring Misrata blame for alleged human rights violations, are unable to return to their homes hundreds of miles to the west, but they had the option of voting on ballots for their home constituency. Turnout was light. The facilities and staffing were on a par with elsewhere, even if the atmosphere was more somber. The facility for disabled people was uplifting: Qaddafi built it as a showcase, but more important than the relatively good physical facility was the spirit of those voting and managing the polling. Many (but not all) had physical limitations of one sort or another. Quiet but unmistakable pride was on display.

The political atmosphere in which the voting took place in Benghazi was one of anticipation and determination. While some Libyans did not vote because they were afraid, feel the NTC betrayed the revolution or support the Federalists, most relished the opportunity. Political leaders of all the major coalitions and parties — my colleagues and I were able to talk with all the major ones in Benghazi — were looking forward to the electoral contest, which included 3,700 candidates.

Early indications are that a coalition led by former NTC prime minister Mahmoud Jibril will do well in the closed-list contest, with over 50 percent of the party list seats in the General Public Conference. Justice and Construction, a creature of the Muslim Brotherhood even if it would prefer to deny the association, is hoping for at least 15 percent but no more than 35 percent, well aware of the unhappiness a bigger share would cause in some quarters. This would be significantly less than in Egypt and Tunisia. Many Libyans regard the Brotherhood as a foreign import that is trying to divide people who generally regard themselves as conservative Muslims. A "patriotic" party, the National Salvation Front, looks like a possible second or third. The experts may say Libya is an invented country — its three pieces were cobbled together for independence in 1951 — but if nothing else the Qaddafi regime has left everyone here literally waving the flag: not his green one, but the red, green, and black monarchical one the revolution prefers and demonstrators drape over your windshield as you pass through the chanting crowd in downtown Benghazi.

Benghazis may be patriotic, but they also feel they have gotten the short end of the stick for far too long. They are looking for respect and constitutional guarantees that it won’t continue. The raw material for an insurgency — charismatic leadership, youthful discontent, and funding — is not lacking in Libya’s east. Benghazi needs a hug. And maybe a few oil service companies, which in recent decades Qaddafi required to locate in Tripoli.

This was not only an inspiring but also a technically impressive election day, despite the scattered violence. Only a handful of communities were unable to vote. The results will be interesting, but the process was the main message. Libya wants democracy. 

Daniel Serwer is a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a scholar at the Middle East Institute. He blogs at www.peacefare.net and tweets @DanielSerwer.