Benghazi vote inspires hope for Libya

Positive polling atmosphere in birthplace of uprising against Muammar Gaddafi bodes well for Libya’s general elections expected in June.

What I saw at the polling stations in Benghazi on Saturday was amazing: The spirit of the people, the happiness in their eyes, the smiles.
Some had never voted in their lives. 
I even saw a blind man making the effort, helped out by Benghazi election committee workers at Tarik Ben Zyad school. 
Another voter was holding the hand of his elderly mother both were smiling, you just sensed how happy they were after they dipped their fingers in the durable ink.
An 82-year-old man named Manaa Fatah told me that the last time he voted was when Libya was a monarchy. That means 1969, when the late Colonel Muammer Gaddafi came to power.

”I’m very happy … this is freedom,” said Fatah.

Queues of women voters were also a striking sight. 
Women made up 43 per cent of the 216,000 registered voters. They can choose 22 female candidates running for the local council’s 41 seats. Some would say that’s a small number, but perhaps things are beginning to change. 
I asked one woman why she voted. ”I want to take part in liberating Libya,” she said.
A man in his 50s who works for an oil company said: ”This is the least we can pay our martyrs. I voted for Benghazi. I voted for Libya.”  A man in his 20s said: ”I see these elections a step to our future.. it represents our ambitions.” 

[Omar al-Saleh/Al Jazeera] 
Monitors from different Libyan NGOs and representatives were present at polling stations. I spoke to a few and the answer I got was, ”There is nothing wrong.” 
One female observer noted that the only thing she saw was that some voters were not sure what to do once they arrived inside the polling room. 

”They had never done it before, so they are learning,” she said with a smile. “‘We are all learning.”

Another serious-looking male observer said his fellow Libyans were “simple and honest”, explaining why there was no evidence of voter fraud or other irregularities.
”I have seen none of that here,” said the man.
I observed that some voters left without the dipping their fingers in the ink, although some came minutes later asking for the trademark sign. Voting started 20 minutes late, it was meant for 8am. It was said that some polling centers were delayed by an hour or two because ballot boxes arrived late. 

Of course, these are only local elections, after all. What makes this so special is that Benghazi was the birthplace for the uprising against Gaddafi. Now, these are the first free elections held in the city since his ouster and death. 
The other point is that many see these elections as an example for the rest of Libya, where general elections are expected in June.
Many observers think that if Benghazi succeeds, the rest of Libya will follow. Many see these elections as the first step towards building a civil and democratic state.

[Omar al-Saleh/Al Jazeera]
These elections are also sending a message. Local officials, residents, and even members of the Benghazi elections committee, will tell you that the winners of these elections should represent the city in the National Transitional Council (NTC). 
Their argument is that the NTC members are appointed, not elected by the people. It would make sense for Benghazi’s 11 current representatives at the NTC to be replaced with the 11 candidates with the highest number of votes. 
It is as yet unclear if the NTC will agree.  It rejected a similar request from the city of Misrata, which also held its local elections recently.  The message is clear: officials in the new Libya should be elected. 
Another point is that some Libyan cities would prefer to run their local affairs, meaning decentralization is vital for Benghazi and other cities.
Finally, what struck me apart from the smooth voting process, was the absence  of weapons and guns of the former revolutionaries. 
Many observers inside and outside Libya had been concerned that armed groups of ex-rebels or the still-active militias would somehow threaten or even influence the process or its outcome. Well, none of that happened. 
There were security forces around the city protecting entrances and exits, on main roads and squares. A few assigned to each polling station. 
I was told that over 2,000 security forces, some of them former rebels, were tasked with the security plan. Of course, the general elections, expected in June, will be different because they will be held across Libya.  It will be a challenge. 
Even so, after the spirit I saw in Benghazi, and Misrata before it, I feel the majority of Libyans will try to make those elections a success.

Follow Omar al-Saleh on Twitter: @AJEOmar

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