July 16, 2012KR OnlineNonfiction

On Libya’s Recent Elections

On Saturday I voted in Libya’s first free elections in nearly fifty years. It was a great feeling multiplied by the exuberant sense of joy expressed by the people on the street in Tripoli. After voting, we drove to Martyrs’ Square, which was crowded with honking cars draped with fluttering flags.

The temperature was already in the thirties at 10:00 a.m. but people were still streaming into the square. I peered at the spot where Qaddafi had given his last public speech slightly more than a year ago in which he exhorted his followers to dance and rejoice to his inevitable victory. The bare stretch of ancient wall where he had stood looked forlorn and shaggy in the summer heat. While below on the square, the people were indeed dancing and rejoicing, bearing the colors of the nation’s independence flag that united them against him.

The voting process was as orderly as any I’d participated in in the US. People stood in line—and they never stand in line in Libya. Though I would have preferred otherwise, there were separate lines for men and women. The old and frail men who showed up were ushered in, some raised victory signs as their wheelchairs were hoisted. People talked about the issues, they expressed their excitement about voting for the first time, they listed the new developments needed to move the country forward, but did not reveal who they voted for.

Below the sense of decorum and awareness of the importance of this moment, there was a sense of excitement and real joy. Women ululated and men shouted praise to God as they exited the voting stations. They pinned flags to their cars and honked their horns as they drove around the city.

As I waited to vote, I felt a sense of lingering sadness that so-called federalist thugs tried to disrupt the elections in my native Benghazi. Former pro-Qaddafi minions allied with an aging Sanussi prince have resorted to violence to disrupt the elections in Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city and the cradle of the revolution.

But at Martyrs’ Square I felt heartened by the chants expressing love to Benghazi. I have never heard of cities serenading each other like they’ve done in Libya’s revolution. While Tripoli was still in Qaddafi’s grasp last summer, Libyans in the liberated areas serenaded their capital, encouraging the Tripolitanians to strike a decisive blow to the dictator’s regime. In Benghazi they exhorted the people of Misrata to fight on and consoled Zawiya for its losses. Now in Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli it was Benghazi’s turn to be loved and the passion in the people’s voices for the nation’s unity was quite affecting.

Later that night, the people of Benghazi who have long recognized the legitimate concerns about marginalization that the federalists raised, decided they’d had enough of the federalists’ bloody shenanigans, and uprooted them from their last holdout. As it turned out the people of Benghazi, despite the disruptions, voted with their feet. Seventy percent voted in this election despite all the attempts at disruption. And as Tripoli gathered at Martyrs’ Square again in the evening to celebrate, Benghazi was not to be outdone. The citizenry, including my eighty-year-old mother streamed to Liberty Square and honked their horns and waved their flags, ululated and praised the Lord.

This is indeed a new era in Libya. Qaddafi, who now seems like a scarecrow that obscured the rest of the nation, is forgotten. Beyond the hope that Libyans feel lays an awareness of potential; despite an intuition steeped in corruption, there is a desire to do things fairly and properly. When people talk about a nation of laws, they really do mean it. They may not want to lose any advantages they have now, but there is real conviction that the rule of law, like the ballot box, is a source of stability for all.

Perhaps most surprising about Libya’s elections, and I speak without seeing the final results, is that a “liberal” grouping is leading in polls, rather than an Islamist party as had happened in Egypt and Tunisia. This, I think, is because Libya is a more conservative country than both her neighbors. Most Libyans feel assured about their Islamic identity and the Muslim Brotherhood’s guardianship and general secrecy had always alienated most of them.

Politicians in Tunisia and Egypt can gain popularity by decrying external interference and Western hegemony. In Libya, people feel they have been bottled up, prevented from interacting with other nations, cultures, and ideas. The last thing Libyans want is another regime or ideology that aims to protect them from the outside world.

Perhaps the worst example of guardianship in Libya was no less the current Mufti, Sheikh Sadek Al-Gheriani. Sheikh Gheriani had become popular during the revolution for issuing fatwas delegitimizing the Qaddafi regime and urging the citizenry to rebel.

However, Gheriani squandered much of his street credit by his forceful drive to impose religion on every national concern, and his vehement attacks on secularists and those who oppose Sharia law. Many people, me included, were annoyed by his abuse of the nation’s mobile phone networks and the SMS messages he sent offering advice and directives to the believers.

The sheikh’s assumption of authority no one had granted him was symbolic of the “moderate” Islamists hunger for power in Libya. The Islamists failed because they took the nation’s apparent religiosity and conservatism for granted and assumed the country’s pious denizens are pushovers.

What will happen now that we voted the way we did? We shall see some disturbances, and perhaps some aftershock of cynicism as it will take some time to form a government. The moderate Islamists have to regroup, but it’s not clear what they’ll do. They hold many key positions in the nation’s various municipal security structures. The radical Islamists who abhor democracy have been defeated by a population that voted in large numbers. The federalists have also lost in the East.

Some, but not all, of the nation’s wounds have been treated by this election. We have a nation, united, moderate, and on the rise. I doubt there has ever been a better time to be Libyan, and I for one, am glad to have lived to see this day. Sure, there’s much more work ahead. Voting as they did, Libya’s women and men, are saying, “Bring it on!”

Khaled Mattawa currently teaches in the graduate creative writing program at the University of Michigan. He is the author of four books of poetry and a critical study of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Mattawa has coedited two anthologies of Arab American literature and translated many volumes of contemporary Arabic poetry. His awards include the Academy of American Poets Fellowship Prize, the PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, and a MacArthur Fellowship. He is the current editor of Michigan Quarterly Review.