Saturday, July 14, 2012

Lift Your Head High, You're a Free Libyan

The title of this post is probably my favorite piece of graffiti around town - إرفع رأسك فوق انت ليبي حر - and it ran through my mind constantly on election day.  How can I describe the excitement of a people who suffered for more than four decades under a capricious regime?  What words can capture the sounds of a nation celebrating something that none had ever expected to see?

Many of you saw my post on Facebook about this - unlike many of my colleagues, who had official election monitoring duties, my main responsibilities on election day was to escort Sen. John McCain to a series of official meetings and visits to polling stations.  McCain is well loved by Libyans, who remember his vocal support for their cause early in the revolution and in his efforts to increase U.S. support to Libya in the transitional phase.  People recognized him wherever we went.  When we'd arrive at a polling station, I could hear people shouting, is that McCain?  Is that John McCain?

We saw women singing while they waited in line to vote, men weeping as they put their ballots into the ballot boxes, and everywhere, people smiling while they held up their ink-stained fingers.  Election workers and voters shared their stories with us.  One poll worker had lost both of her brothers on the day Tripoli was liberated.  Another's father was killed in the 1996 massacre in Abu Salim prison.  Yet another was born in exile to a family that had to flee because of his father's opposition work to the Gadhafi regime.  Another woman looked to be older than independent and even colonial Libya, and indeed she didn't know exactly how old she was.  She had to be carried to her second-floor polling station, but nothing could stop her from casting her vote.

After dinner we walked along the corniche downtown, towards Martyrs' Square, where the residents of Tripoli were celebrating the conclusion their first free elections.  People sang and danced, fireworks were shot off from the walls of the Red Castle, and children waved flags from their parents' arms.  After the sunset call to prayer, mosques broadcast takbirs constantly for hours.

So much emotion a week ago - but where is Libya now?  Well, for the time being, votes are still being tabulated.  Some parties did better than expected, others worse.  Some politicians are using this time to seek out probable coalition partners, basing their expectations on the voting tallies that have been released so far.  No one has - yet - challenged the results that have been released, but the battle of words between party leaders continues, as parties try to convince independents to join this coalition or that.  In other words, Libyan politicians are acting exactly like politicians in any other democracy.

And that's exactly how the Libyan people would have it.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Elections

In 34 hours the polls will open for the first free elections in Libya's history.  More than 80% of Libya's eligible voters registered in May to prepare for this election, when two hundred representatives will be selected from more than three thousand candidates to form the body that will draft Libya's first democratic constitution and determine how future elected governments will be formed.  Tripoli is covered with political ads, affixed to walls, covering road signs, streaming from cars, and scattered around every office and store.  Parties are forbidden from campaigning after 8 AM tomorrow, so tonight is the final push to win over voters.

This election process has not been without hiccups, as is any campaign in countries grown weary of biannual contests between familiar candidates.  The fact that this is the first election in more than forty-five years in Libya, and only the second election ever here, makes the achievements even more impressive.  There are concerns, of course: concerns about persistent intercommunal violence in southern and western Libya, concerns that threatened boycotts in eastern cities will undermine the legitimacy of the election, concerns that challenges and appeals of vote tallies will drag out the final announcements of the results.  Then there's the overwhelming concern that this election is only the start of a much more challenging process: the challenge of building healthy, stable democratic institutions in a country that has never known them.  But the enthusiasm I've seen since my arrival here in Libya is humbling and infectious.

When I was growing up, my parents would always take me with them to vote and would let me pull the levers for their selected candidates in the voting machines.  I was first able to vote in a local referendum, on whether to raise the millage for our local school district.  I was one of 250 voters on the issue, and by God was I proud of it!  I try to catch every election that I can, no matter how small the issue, but I must admit that it's hard to keep abreast of local issues when I live overseas most of the time, especially given the time delays in international mail that affect absentee voting.  In Libya, though, what will happen Saturday is something that thousands of people died for, very recently and very nearby.  I've already written about the ever-present reminders in Tripoli of the war dead, of the the rebels and the wounded.  Saturday's election is one of the first steps in justifying their deaths: life without Gadhafi is sweet, but a country cannot remain in a post-dictatorial euphoria forever.  The hardest steps are ahead, in honoring the memory those who died under Gadhafi's capricious rule and in the struggle to overthrow him by building a new Libya.

Two days ago I went to the opening ceremony for the international media center hosted by the entity that organized the elections.  The beautiful facilities are in a convention center by the Rixos Hotel, where journalists were held virtual hostage during the war.  The convention center itself was only used once, having been purpose-built by Gadhafi for a November 2010 European Union-African Union summit.  Now it's to be the home of international and local media outlets covering the elections, the site from which the election commission will announce results and hold press conferences throughout the day.  Upstairs from the media center is the hall where the national congress will be seated in a few weeks' time.  It's still under construction now - risers were being hammered together even as we visited, and  workers busily welded the podium from which speakers could address the congress.

Overseas voters started voting three days ago in select locations.  During the opening ceremony at the media center, we watched videos of the first voters in Germany and Jordan and the UAE placing their votes into the ballot boxes, surrounded by media and cheering Libyans.  In fewer than two years from Gadhafi's EU-AU summit, the center he built as an egotistical show of wealth houses two symbols of the new Libya: a center for the enthusiastic press corps that has developed in Libya and the future home of Libya's first truly representative body.

I will be out and about on Saturday, visiting polling stations as an accredited elections observer.  This is the reason I wanted an assignment in Libya over all others - to be here for this historic event, to witness the rebirth of Libya as a democratic state, and to cheer for the brave Libyan people, who have waited so long for this day.