Elections in Libya's Misrata show a splintered nation
Girls and women attend a celebration of Libya's liberation in Freedom Square in Misrata, Libya, Oct. 23, 2011. (AP / Manu Brabo)
MISRATA, Libya - Four months after the death of Moammar Gadhafi, the people of Misrata were frustrated by stalled reforms. They played a key role in overthrowing the Libyan dictator of 42 years, and were impatient to see the changes they shed blood for.
Revolutionaries accused the self-appointed city council that came to power early in the uprising of deeply rooted corruption, allegations which the council head denied. They staged a sit-in on the council's steps, got the members to resign and call new elections, which were held on Monday.
The vote was the first experiment in real democracy anywhere in Libya, and the fact that it happened here only demonstrated the newfound clout of Misrata, Libya's third-largest city, on the national political scene.
It was also another example of how Libya is splintering into largely autonomous city-states, with powerful local militias and emerging local governments that at best have loose ties to the Tripoli-based central government known as the National Transitional Council.
"This is a turn in Libya from suppression and dictatorship to democracy," said Abdullah al-Kabir, a political commentator in Misrata. "Libya has never known real elections."
So far, cities like Misrata are pushing ahead even faster with the transition to democracy than the national government is.
The National Transitional Council says elections for the 200-member national assembly will be held in June but no date has been set. The assembly will name a new government and select a panel to write a constitution.
But many Libyans are frustrated with what they call a slow pace of political transformation. The coastal city of Benghazi, which was the rebel capital during the uprising, has also sacked its council and called for elections next month.
The rebellious coastal city of Misrata, with about 300,000 residents, suffered horribly during last year's revolution. Gadhafi's forces shelled the city for weeks, and fierce street battles left thousands dead, missing or injured. Mothers sent their sons to the front lines, while selling their gold jewelry to finance arms purchases.
The inexperienced but tenacious Misrata rebels managed to push Gadhafi's forces out of the city in late April, a turning point that left the regime increasingly isolated in the capital and a few other cities in the western half of Libya.
Then the Misratan rebels pushed out of the city. Working with insurgents from the western mountains along the border with Tunisia, they converged from two sides on the regime stronghold of Tripoli and brought the capital down in a few days.
A few months later in October, it was rebels from Misrata who captured Gadhafi in his hometown and final stronghold of Sirte and killed him. They hauled him back to Misrata and put his rotting body on public display in a vegetable cooler for days, while the city's residents gleefully lined up to see it.
Reminders of those vicious battles were all around Monday as Misratans gathered at the polls to vote for the 28-member local council.
Banners hung on the walls of bullet-gouged houses, which were scrawled with the names of martyrs who died during the uprising. Voters wrapped themselves in Libyan flags as they stood in line to cast their ballot.
Residents of the Mediterranean coastal city had grown increasingly impatient with a lack of guidance from the National Transitional Council based in Tripoli, 125 miles (200 kilometres) to the northwest. The council was supposed to be the country's central authority during the transition period.
Misratans drew once again on their independent streak and decided to forge ahead with a local election on their own.
"The (city) council was not up to the level of what the city accomplished during the revolution," said Abdel-Basit Boum Zariq, the deputy head of the city's human rights commission.
At one school where voters cast their ballots, the smell of fresh paint wafted through the halls. Gamela al-Tohami, the school director, waved her purple ink-stained finger which has become the universal sign for voting across the Middle East. She said Gadhafi forces shelled the school during the fighting and only recently holes in the walls that had been used by snipers had been refilled.
"This is the first time we have seen real democracy in my entire life. Before we were being monitored and terrorized," she said.
Even before Gadhafi came to power in September 1969, elections were widely rigged.
During Gadhafi's era, the closest thing to democracy were elections held for local bodies called "people's committees" but the vote was generally regarded as a farce to rubber-stamp regime candidates.
As Gadhafi's control began to disintegrate last year, councils composed of judges, lawyers and businessmen were formed in cities around the country. But many council members were members of the old regime with little legitimacy.
After the fighting died down in Misrata, many residents grew angry at what they said was corruption among the council members. Tarek bin Hameda, one candidate running for city council, said the outgoing council was not transparent.
He alleged that aid sent to the city council for local associations was not fairly distributed.
"The council head was part of the old regime, and he works with the same Gadhafi mentality. The mechanism was the same and that led the street to explode," bin Hameda said. "The youth want new blood."
Khalifa al-Zawawi, head of the outgoing city council, responded to the allegations by saying: "I defy anybody to prove that a single cent has been put in the wrong place," he said. "We documented everything and we have our proof for transparency," he added.
Al-Kabir, the political commentator, attributed part of their problems to inexperience.
Only one member of the outgoing council is running for re-election, while the rest stayed away.
"We thought that we have to give a chance for new faces," al-Zawawi said.
The candidates in Misrata have mostly focused their platforms on general themes such as improving education, security and health care.
"The priority in my program is to build the human being before building the state," bin Hameda said.