Libya looks cautiously toward elections
The Washington Post
By Alice Fordham
TRIPOLI — In an improvised office daubed with revolutionary slogans, part of an appropriated complex in Tripoli that once housed Moammar Gaddafi’s cronies, rebel commander Muhmmad Zintani contemplated his future.
“I am thinking of forming a political party,” he said, still in his uniform and sporting a bushy beard grown on the battlefield. “Democracy and social justice is what it would stand for,” he added, insisting that he would give fair trials to loyalists of the regime that he fought to topple.
But outside, the youthful fighters he commands rip up Gaddafi’s green flag and rattle off rounds of heavy artillery, reminders that Libya’s new politicians are emerging from a chaotic and volatile situation.
The country’s interim leaders have called for parliamentary elections to be held by late June. Ahmed Jibril, the prime minister when that timetable was set, has more recently said the process should be sped up, to avoid a power vacuum. But others fear that even eight months is not long enough to prepare for an election in a place that has not seen one in more than four decades.
There are no voter lists, no electoral districts, no rules about who can run for office, and, in a country where all political activity was brutally suppressed, few people understand the concept of a political party.
On the ground, a host of groups including the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, USAID and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems are helping nascent political and civil groups to form and educating voters.
But the ruling Transitional National Council has not yet designated Libyan officials to organize the vote and has not decided whether those close to the former regime will be allowed to stand for election.
In neighboring Tunisia, last month’s elections were declared free and fair by international observers, with voters celebrating as they cast their ballots. But the logistical challenges posed in Libya — which lacks any elections infrastructure — are far greater.
“The baseline for elections here is different from neighboring countries,” said Maryann Maguire, a British governance adviser who has been working with the transitional council in the east of the country. “People don’t know what elections are, what a political party is and how they form, how do you cast a ballot.”
Many observers are cautiously optimistic about the prospect of a fair vote here. The ruling council has called for transparency — a sharp contrast with Egypt, where the army, which took control after the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February, said in July that foreign observers would not be allowed during elections later this month.
Implementing a fair vote
In a hotel lobby in Tripoli, rushing between meetings with activists, academics and political officials, Salwa Bugaigis, a lawyer who was part of the initial uprising in the eastern city of Benghazi, said she is overwhelmed by the work necessary to implement a fair vote.
“It’s very important for us to reach democracy — it’s the goal of the revolution,” she said. “But in eight months, I don’t know if we can make it.”
Bugaigis recently returned from Tunisia, where she and other female activists observed the election, the first time any of them had seen a ballot box or party slogan. The lines of people waiting for hours in the heat to cast their votes were inspiring, she says, but in Libya, which was more cut off from the world, she fears that it will be years before a structured political system emerges.
“We don’t know anything about freedom and democracy. It is a big challenge,” she said, adding that a Tunisian requirement that electoral lists include 50 percent women would be unacceptable to many Libyans.
Bugaigis is contemplating running for office herself, but said she fears that this first elected government, which will write the country’s new constitution and laws, will consist largely of men from the country’s 50 or so tribes, who hold substantial sway in society.
“I wish it were not the case,” she said. “But you can’t change [the Libyans’] mentality immediately. It will take some time.”
In the short term, candidates are likely to emerge among people who were — secretly, under Gaddafi — linked with the Muslim Brotherhood group and the immensely popular leaders of the rebel army, who often command largely regional loyalties. Many of the tens of thousands of rebel fighters say they want to vote for someone who shared their experiences.
Housam Najjair, a Libyan-Irish citizen who joined the armed rebels, said democracy was not on his mind as he fought his way to Tripoli from the western mountains.
“We were simply fighting for freedom,” he said. “Did we go into cities thinking about the vote? No, the job at hand was just to liberate ourselves from Gaddafi.”
But Najjair is now setting up a political party, motivated by frustration at the lack of jobs, money and hospital treatment for those who fought to overthrow the regime. Libyans, he said, are eager to learn about politics and elections, but deeply rooted cultural and religious norms will inevitably inform their choices.
“You’re not going to win a vote here seeking a secular state, absolutely, definitely,” he says. His party will adopt “moderate, democratic, Islamic values.”
In Tripoli, many people have high hopes for elections, though most acknowledge that Libya has a lot to learn.
“We are glad to vote,” said Basheer Zaid, a fruit-stall owner in a bustling market. “We will slowly understand what an election is. For years, we were ignorant, like gangsters, there were tribes against each other.”
“I am going to educate myself to find out what an election is, using the television and Internet,” says Fawzia Tajjoura, a 43-year-old teacher at a nearby sheep market. But Siraj Muftah, a 24-year-old student standing nearby, interrupted a chorus of people expressing hope for a democratic future.
“Things are not yet clear,” he said. “This is a new revolution and you cannot tell where things will go. An election itself is not good, we have to see if what happens after the voting is good.”Top