Conflict & Justice

Misrata Holds First Free Local Elections

Misrata-Libya.jpg

A line outside of a polling station in Misrata, Libya (Photo: Marine Olivesi)

A year ago, an uprising broke out in the Libyan town of Misrata. The coastal town was the epicenter of some of the Libyan revolution's most violent battles for months after that.

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On Monday, four months after the fall of Moammar Gaddafi, Misrata is holding its first free local election,

A few hours before the polls open, young volunteers stack ballot papers, cut name tags and distribute district maps. Everyone is rushing around, completing last-minute preparations.

In the midst of it all is Mohamed Benruwin, the head of the independent electoral committee. Benruwin, a Misrata native, is also chair of Political Science at Texas A&M International University in Laredo. He said this small election is a huge undertaking.

"People think we're just running an election," he said. "We are really establishing a database; we are buying the computers, borrowing the boxes from Tunisia, buying the ink from London. That's not our job!" he said, with a laugh.

Benruwin returned to Libya for a lecture in December, and local leaders asked him to organize Misrata's first free election.

"This is not really a classic election process because we are starting everything from scratch. We challenged ourselves to do it in a month to assure the rest of the world that we're capable to rebuild our country."

Within a few weeks, he and his team registered more than 100,000 voters, about 65 percent of residents over 18.

On election day, voters are selecting 28 members for Misrata's city council.

The line to vote stretches outside a middle school. This polling station is just around the corner from Tripoli Street, the site of some of the most violent clashes between rebels and pro-Gaddafi soldiers.

Emhemed, who lives a block away, said he fought in those battles, and lost many friends. He remembers the early days when the insurgents only had stones against the army's bullets.

"It was our duty to fight back then," Emhemed said. "It is our duty to vote today."

Emhemed hands his ID to one volunteer, who hands him back a ballot with 42 names of candidates. In front of each name, there's distinctive symbol: a sun, a book, a boat, or a bicycle. Voters who can't read can pick out their candidates by these symbols.

On the other side of the room, about a dozen observers watch the scene and take notes.

"This is a new experience and we are happy to live this moment," said Ibrahim Albeit, a local architect.

He's one of 200 observers at polling stations. Most of the other observers are from out of town. They're not casting ballots, but they say this day is one for the books.

"I'm 43-years-old," said Rifayt El-Eish, who came here from Benghazi. "This is the first time for me to watch real elections."

He added that the main goal for those from Benghazi is to learn what people in Misrata have done and apply to their own elections.

"If Misrata succeeds, we will succeed in other cities," he said.

Benruwin, the professor from Texas, said today's experience will help prepare for the country's general elections in June.

"I am a practical. I believe in experimentation. I know this is a starting point. We are not claiming that this is a perfect process, but we start from below zero and we are accomplishing an institution," Benruwin said.

Misrata's local election is taking place as Libya's new leaders struggle to stamp their authority on the country. Hundreds of armed militias —many of them from Misrata— are considered to hold the real power in Libya, and many of them been accused of committing human rights violations.

Benruwin said he hopes Monday's election shows the international community that his town can also help pave the way to a democratic country.