Experiencing election day in Tripoli

Tripoli, July 7 The polling stations opened at 8 AM, and already there are reports of long lines of people waiting outside. A normal day in Libya usually gets going much later, so I’m a little bit caught off guard. I join a Libyan friend, Huda, and her brother on their way to a polling ...

Courtesy of Chloé de Préneuf
Courtesy of Chloé de Préneuf
Courtesy of Chloé de Préneuf

Tripoli, July 7

The polling stations opened at 8 AM, and already there are reports of long lines of people waiting outside. A normal day in Libya usually gets going much later, so I'm a little bit caught off guard.

I join a Libyan friend, Huda, and her brother on their way to a polling station in central Tripoli. The voting system is complicated, to say the least. In some districts they're voting for individual candidates, some for party lists, and some for both. One third of the seats are going to political entities (parties, basically); the rest go to individual candidates. Altogether 2,639 individual candidates are competing for 120 seats and 142 parties are competing for 80 seats. Add the fact that there haven't been any pre-election polls and it's impossible to tell what the results are going to be. For example, one of my friends is voting for both the Muslim Brotherhood's party and Fatima Ghandour, an outspoken female liberal activist -- just to even things out. How are you supposed to predict anything?

Tripoli, July 7

The polling stations opened at 8 AM, and already there are reports of long lines of people waiting outside. A normal day in Libya usually gets going much later, so I’m a little bit caught off guard.

I join a Libyan friend, Huda, and her brother on their way to a polling station in central Tripoli. The voting system is complicated, to say the least. In some districts they’re voting for individual candidates, some for party lists, and some for both. One third of the seats are going to political entities (parties, basically); the rest go to individual candidates. Altogether 2,639 individual candidates are competing for 120 seats and 142 parties are competing for 80 seats. Add the fact that there haven’t been any pre-election polls and it’s impossible to tell what the results are going to be. For example, one of my friends is voting for both the Muslim Brotherhood’s party and Fatima Ghandour, an outspoken female liberal activist — just to even things out. How are you supposed to predict anything?

As we head into the center of town, we’re deafened by the non-stop honking. Libyan flags are everywhere. They’re being waved by people leaning out of car windows or sitting on the roofs of cars. People shout Allahau Akbar ("God is great") at each other whenever they cross paths.

It’s a party. A momentous celebration. A city-wide Libyan wedding, times ten.

In the polling station, Huda and I part with her brother and head off to the women’s section. The women’s line dwarfs the men’s line. Women young and old, covered and uncovered, chat away excitedly despite the slow-moving line and the debilitating heat. Some are wearing traditional Libyan clothes; some are wearing formal Western dress; others are wrapped in flags.

The group of women in front of us are still deciding whom to vote for. One of them explains that she had originally wanted to vote for Mahmoud Jibril, the interim prime minister during the latter phase of the revolution against Qaddafi. (Jibril himself isn’t running, but it’s hard to tell because his picture is on all the posters of his party, the National Forces Alliance.) She said that she that she had decided instead to follow the instructions of Sadek al-Gheriani, a leading cleric who told people not to vote for Jibril. Her friend tells her not to listen to al-Gheriani. In the end, the woman decides to vote for Ali Tarhouni‘s National Centrist Party. As she explains it, Tarhouni is ideologically close to Jibril, but he’s not Jibril.

We spend at least an hour in line, but local officials are handing out water and juice to everybody, which helps to make it bearable. All in all, it’s a very well-organized affair — to the surprise of many. Preparations for the elections were rushed and chaotic. If you had asked anyone in the past few months how the preparations were going, you were sure to get a look of wild-eyed alarm. But today, at least in Tripoli, things have gone smoothly.

Apart from our emotions. Women are falling into each other’s arms, teary-eyed and sometimes crying. Everywhere you see people posing for pictures, proudly holding up their purple fingers. Waiting for Huda while she’s in the voting booth, I look out into the street. I see two middle-aged men run to hug each other. Their friends have joined and it’s now a group hug. Passersby flash the victory sign at them, call out Allahu Akbar, and pat them on the back.

We stop in a café for a quick espresso; one of the customers there is handing out free sweets. Then we head off to Radio Zone, one of the many new radio stations born out of the revolution. Voters are calling in to share their excitement. We go to another polling center and spot a TV celebrity, without his entourage, staring at the list of candidates, as if frozen in place.

A heavy, humid afternoon is settling in, and now it’s siesta time. We stop by an independent media center run by a local weekly newspaper and a German development organization. It’s a place to share news and analyses about the elections. There have been some incidents in the East, where over the past week polling stations have been raided and a helicopter carrying election materials was shot down — all reminders that Tripoli is still something of a bubble. Still, overall everything seems to be going relatively well. Local residents are protecting the polling stations. Even some of the "extreme Islamists," as one of the journalists tell us, have come out to guard voting precincts.

Outside, the mosques are doing takbir, intoning "God is Great, there is no god but God" through their minaret loudspeakers, over and over. It’s the clerics’ way of calling the faithful to attention at times of danger (as they often did during the revolution). Some find it ominous and unjustified on a day like today — as if the religious establishment is trying to remind voters of their Islamic duties in the voting booth. Having little previous experience of takbir, though, I find it enthralling.

Later in the day we decide to check out the voting center in Abu Salim, the former loyalist stronghold and last district in Tripoli to fall. It’s a different world out there. Although trash collection is an issue all over the city, here heaps of trash line one of the main roads on the way to the infamous Abu Salim prison, site of a mass killing of prisoners in 1996. There are very few election posters. It’s getting dark, and we’re almost out of gas, so we decide to leave.

It turns out that everybody is going to central Tripoli. The road back in is one massive traffic jam — or rather, a huge party disguised as a traffic jam. Tripolitanians like to socialize from their cars — cruising back and forth on Gargaresh Street on Thursday nights, staging impromptu races, flirting — so it’s all in good spirit. The cars are barely moving but people are having fun, dangling out of their car windows and singing and waving their inked fingers and waving their flags. And honking, of course.

We leave our car behind as soon as we’re within walking distance from Martyr’s Square, the heart of Tripoli. On our way, oddly enough, we stumble upon U.S. Senator John McCain, who’s in town for the election. He’s happy to be photographed with a friend’s little girl. (She, by the way, managed to persuade one of the polling booth ladies to let her die her finger purple — and she’s very proud of her achievement.)

Finally we reach the square. It’s always impressive because of its size and its stadium floodlights. But tonight it’s packed. There are games for children, including a huge bouncy castle, motorbike shows, music, fireworks, lanterns that float up into the sky. And despite the late hour it’s a family affair. There are plenty of women. A group of men in military garb want a photo with us. One of them thrusts an AK-47 into my hands. We’re all grinning at the victory signs being flashed at us. Someone yells: "We won’t have a second shafshoufa!" — using a derogatory nickname for the dead Qaddafi that plays on his puffy hair.

Of course, the shift to democracy isn’t something that happens overnight. The National Transitional Council and the transitional government were a disappointment to most. (They even changed the rules of the game two days before the election by passing a new law stipulating that the Constitutional Council — a group of 60 people that was supposed to be nominated by the National Assembly being elected today — is now supposed to be directly elected by the population. That probably means that there will have to be another general election in just a few months.)

So the newly elected national assembly and the future interim government will start with a serious handicap. But Libyans aren’t stupid, and they know it won’t be easy. If they don’t, we can count on the pundits and the commentators to tell them soon enough. But for the moment, let’s just let them celebrate.

Chloé de Préneuf is program coordinator for political studies at the Legatum Institute in London.

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