Published on 7 Jul 2012

Libyans vote in hope of different future

For Wanise Elisawi this was a special day. Incarcerated for 19 years in Abu Salim, Gaddafi’s most notorious gaol, an eye-witness to the 1996 massacre in which 1,270 men were killed, he was on the brink of tears as he cast his ballot.

“This is very historical for me,” he said. “Even in prison we used to say we must live in the present but hope for the future.”

Wanise was sorry that others from eastern Libya decided to boycott the poll. “They have missed this historical moment,” he said. The anti-election protestors had gathered at a Benghazi roundabout.

A statue of quite phenomenal ugliness, made of upturned pipes from Gaddafi’s Great Man Made River project, stood in the centre covered in graffiti and now topped with a black flag, representing Cyrenaica, the historic eastern region. Young men, some armed with machetes and knives, who had ransacked at least four polling stations, were burning ballot boxes and voting slips.

“We tried many ways like protesting peacefully and many conferences but they didn’t care about us so our last resort was to take these boxes and burn them. This is the only solution,” said a young man in tattered jeans and a grey tee-shirt.

He and his friends were sure that the system which gives 102 parliamentary seats to western Libya, and only 60 to the east is unfair. The argument that the west has a higher population, or that maybe you should vote first and then argue your case, had no currency.

Despite the disturbances, this was a happy day in Libya. Most people I met at the polling stations were optimistic and excited to be voting for the first time in their lives. Of course there are myriad problems, and there’s no guarantee that an elected government will do a better job than the transitional council in reining in militia, or answering the complaints of the federalists.

Libya could still disintegrate, and violence is unlikely to end in the near future. Yet it’s still remarkable to think that less than 18 months ago, no Libyan could have dreamed they would be having a democratic election, that they could leave the Gaddafi era behind and start to forge a different future.

You can follow Lindsey on Twitter @lindseyhilsum

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