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Libya looks cautiously toward elections

By Alice Fordham,

TRIPOLI, Libya — In an improvised office daubed with revolutionary slogans, part of an appropriated complex in Tripoli that once housed Moammar Gaddafi’s cronies, rebel commander Muhammad 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 fire 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. Mahmoud 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 a June vote would not allow enough time 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.

“Libya is coming from nowhere in terms of useful electoral experience,” said Ian Martin, the United Nations envoy here. U.N. teams will play a major role in planning the elections.

A big education project

Organizations such as the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, the U.S. Agency for International Development and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems are helping nascent political and community groups and educating voters.

But the ruling Transitional National Council has yet to designate Libyan officials to organize the vote, nor has it 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 in Libya — which lacks any election 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. 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 this month.

Implementing a fair vote

In a hotel lobby in Tripoli, rushing between meetings with activists, academics and political officials, Salwa Bugaighis, 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.”

Bugaighis recently returned from Tunisia, where she and other female activists observed the election. It was 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 said, 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. At a women’s conference in Tripoli on Sunday, however, the transitional ­justice minister, Mohammed al-Alagi, called for a parliamentary quota of more than 25 percent women.

Bugaighis is contemplating running for office herself but said she fears that the 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 [Libyans’] mentality immediately. It will take some time.”

Regional loyalties

In the short term, candidates are likely to emerge from among those who were — secretly, under Gaddafi — linked with the Muslim Brotherhood 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 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 said. His party, he said, 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, who owns a fruit stall 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,” said 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.”

© The Washington Post Company