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Friday, July 6, 2012

Libya at the crossroads: The ballot or the bullet


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Martyr's Square in Tripoli is filling up now with celebrating Libyans as the polls close at 11:00am pst in Libya. It is the first free national election in Libya in almost 50 years. The mood across the country has been festive as millions of Libyans lined up at more than 1548 polling centers across the country to cast their ballots and have their thumbs dipped in indelible ink for the first time in more than two generation.


International observers have praised both the organization of the vote and the patience of the voters. The voting has gone off without a hitch around Tripoli and Misrata, only in the east of the country, where there is a radical federalist movement were there any problems. Federalist attacks on polling stations in Brega and Abdiya were successful only in delaying the vote and although several polling stations in Benghazi were attacked, only in one case were they able to seize ballots, which they told an Al Jazeera reporter they were going to burn. The High National Election Commission [HNEC] plans called for 30 people on security at each polling station but after the attacks in Benghazi, the people came out in their masses to protect the polling stations and so far no further attacks have been reported.

This election was originally scheduled for June 19th. I liked that because Juneteenth is Freedom Day for black Americans, but as that day approached it became clear to almost everyone that the day was approaching much too fast. Eventually it became clear to the HNEC as well and they re-scheduled it for July 7th. By then everything was in place for a successful election. 2.9 million Libyans, 80% of those eligible have registered since May Day. 46% of those registered are women and so are more than 600 of the 2563 candidates running for a seat in the 200 member assembly. By all accounts, voter turn out was very high today.







Not everybody is happy with this election and its timing. Some felt that elections should come after a new constitution has been drafted, but there have been many complaints about the NTC and most Libyans are keen to turn the steering of the ship of state over to an elected leadership as soon as possible. One of the tasks of the National Conference to be elected today was to have been selecting the 60 members of the Constitutional Commission. Then the NTC made a last minute concession to the federalists. and they ruled the Constitutional Commission will be elected directly. Libyans were surprised by the move and many felt it will do little to placate the opponents of the election:

“This won’t not make any difference to the federalists. They want much more than that,” said the head of the of Union for Homeland party, Aburrahman Sewelh. “They want to go back to the 1951 constitution and divide Libya into three.”
In defense of the NTC, I have to say they have done pretty well for a group that kinda just pulled itself together to lead a revolution under very difficult conditions. Their representatives from Tripoli and many other places had to remain anonymous until the very end and they were plague by all of the differences in Libya and had to deal with Qaddafi agents as well. Certainly they had their short comings but the Syrian National Council would do well to emulated them in their grass-roots connection to the struggle and the united front they showed the world. At the same time, it has largely served its purpose by bringing the revolution to this time and place where the people of Libya can choose their own leadership.

As Libyans go to the polls today to vote in their first nationwide elections in 42 years there are two elements that can be expected to try to spoil the party.

One is the so-called "green resistance", i.e. pro-Qaddafi plotters, and while they so far have proved to be considerably less troublesome than Confederate outlaws in the US after US Civil War, they are still alive and plotting. A fair portion of the "chaos" that has plagued Libya since the triumph of the revolution can be traced back to them. They are not amused by the idea that the Libyan people are electing their national leadership and they still have money and connections, so they might be expect to make mischief around the vote. But so far they haven't been a problem.

The group that has caused some real problems are the federalist in the Benghazi region and yesterday suspected federalist gunmen took the life of Abdullah Al-Barassi, a 22 year old HNEC volunteer by shooting at an election commission helicopter.

The NY Times falsely reported that the helicopter had been shot down. It was not. It was shot at, two people were hit and it was forced to land. The NY Times may have been in favor of the ouster of Mummar Qaddafi, but they aren't really in favor of a liberated and revolutionary Libya, so they have a tendency to exaggerate any bad news out of Libya. That's why the anti-interventions turned counter-revolutionaries just love to cite the NY Times and other bourgeois media to attack the Libyan revolution.

Earlier in the week, a group of about 300 armed federalists stormed an election office in Benghazi, wrecking computers and burning election papers. Fortunately no one was killed or injured in that incident.

The federalists have been opposed by regular rallies of some 2,000 anti-federalists outside the Benghazi courthouse in support of the election every evening since Monday.

“I’ve been coming here almost every night to protest against the violence”, said Seraj Bugaughis, a former head of finance at the AGOCO oil company. “I think this violence has made people still more determined to vote.”
The day before that, pro-federalist militiamen closed down oil terminals at Ras Lanuf, Sidra, Brega, and Al-Hreigaarea. [Reuters article] An election materials storage center was also burned to the ground in Ajdabiya and someone fired a C5 rocket and an RPG at the Benghazi Medical Center.
They are a minority, but an extremely noisy one”, said Suleiman Zubi, Benghazi’s former election commissioner and now a candidate for tomorrow’s elections. “Stopping oil refineries will not stop this vote from going ahead. People haven’t come this far only to throw it all away now”.
The day before the election the federalist had a very noisy demonstration of about 300 protesters off Dubai street in Benghazi.

Very briefly on background. Once upon a time Libya was three countries that became one, Tripolitania in west, Cyrenaica in the east and Fezzan in the south. In the unified Libya Tripolitania was dominate during the 42 year regime of Qaddafi, Benghazi and Cyrenaica generally got the short end of the stick. Southern Libya was also generally neglected and in the west, the Amazigh people and their language were suppressed. Now that that is the past and Libya is recreating itself, the people of a number of regions are keen to see that the old regional inequalities aren't recreated in the new Libya.

This has been most notable in Benghazi. In the east, beyond the more widely shared concerns of many, there has been an organized and active federalist movement that includes groups with demands that range from more seats in the national constituent assembly to complete autonomy and even independence for Cyrenaica. In March they held a convention with 3,000 delegates in Benghazi and declared the creation of a Cyrenaica National Council headed by Ahmed Zubair Senussi, a relative of the late King Idris, Qaddafi’s longest-serving political prisoner and a member of the NTC. They also opposed the constituent assembly elections and called for the adoption of the 1951 constitution in which Libya was a federal state divided into the three regions. They have also provided an arena in which pro-Qaddafi agents have been able to infiltrate and use to instigate trouble for the emerging new Libya.

Now they have called for a boycott of this election and lately they have seemed more prone to rely on small group violence to make their case. I think this is born of frustration because while they may have gotten thousands at the federalist convention, hundreds of thousands in Benghazi are voting with their feet by standing in line to vote. Furthermore, they had to take the steps necessary to register and today we will see how many actually cast their ballots.

The federalists halted production Friday at some Brega oil terminals, they burned an election storage center in Ajdabiya, last week there was an RPG attack on the National Army barracks in Benghazi but now with the attack on the helicopter carrying voting materials outside of Benghazi yesterday in which one man was killed and another injured, many Libyan commentators expect a backlash against the federalists.
“I used to be with the federalists, but they have ruined themselves with these actions”, said Bilal Bettamer, a law student at Beghazi University. “They are too aggressive; they are behaving like terrorists, and I cannot support that. I can tell you that a lot of my friends and family feel the same way.”
In spite of their boycott calls and opposition, the national election has enjoyed wide popular support in Benghazi with over 330,000 Libyans registering to vote in District 3 - Benghazi.

I think it is precisely because they are failing to win the kind of popular support for a federal Libya that could make their dream a realizable goal, that they are turning more towards terrorist tactics. If there were to be any election day violence, this is the group that get my vote as the instigator of it.

But as I said in the beginning, the pro-Qaddafi forces have not entirely gone away. They are out there plotting. We know this because the NTC recently turned back on some of the Qaddafi surveillance equipment and used it to spy on the pro-Qaddafi forces. [Wall St. J] They found a network that was alive and well and in communication with Qaddafi family members and associates abroad.

The Melinda Taylor, the ICC lawyer that the NTC accused of spying, may have been operating as part of that network. She and three other members of her team were released early after serving 26 days of a 45 day sentence for what the NTC considered in appropriate behavior by the ICC defense team. Since her release, she has been very vocal about how she was wronged by the Libyans and how this episode only goes to prove that Saif Qaddafi can't get a fair trial in Libya. But the Libyans feel they have a solid case against her:
In a letter to the UN security council in New York obtained by the Guardian, the Libyan government gives its fullest account yet of the allegations against Taylor. It claims she was caught red-handed trying to pass Saif a secret letter from Mohammad Ismail, Saif's main aide and an associate of Gaddafi's intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi.

Taylor, an Australian lawyer, also took in a sophisticated miniature video camera pen and a watch that "functions for the same purpose", according to the Libyans. Her behaviour was a clear violation of Libya's own judicial rules and the moral and professional commitments of the ICC, the letter says.
Qaddafi family members and former Qaddafi officials have been found to be behind a number of violent incidents in Libya since the regime's fall, so the new government takes this kind of thing very seriously. And while the International Criminal Court is generally portrayed as above reproach, they are a mixed bag and subjected the same political pressures as other international bodies.

This evening the Libyan voters are partying in Martyr's Square and Libya begins a new era and another chapter in the history of the Libyan Revolution is born. It use to be called Green Square. Stephanie Lamy reminded me of that in a tweet today of and reminded me that one year ago today, here at the Daily Kos, I exposed the myth of Qaddafi's popularity by publishing Qaddafi's Million Man March. She also reminded me that this was a day of celebration for her and me and all in the international community that worked last year in support of the Libyan people so that this day could be realized. This is our victory too.





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