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In Libya, Expectations High as Parliamentary Vote Approaches

A worker in Benghazi erects a campaign poster for General National Congress elections. Photo by Mohammed Abed/AFP/Getty Images.

On Saturday, Libyans will vote for the first time since the ouster of dictator Moammar Gadhafi — the first free parliamentary election in more than 40 years.

They’ll vote for an interim 200-member national assembly, which will replace the unelected National Transitional Council, name a prime minister and appoint a committee to draft a constitution.

The vote was postponed from June 19 to July 7 to resolve logistical and technical problems, and give more time for registering voters and vetting candidates.

More than 100 political parties have registered, including the Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, called the Justice and Development Party; the conservative Islamist party, the National Party (Al Watan); and the National Forces Alliance, which calls for a “moderate Islam.” (From Reuters: Libya’s First Post-Gadhafi Vote to Test Islamists)

Stephen McInerney, executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy, who traveled to Libya last month, said at a recent POMED-hosted event that the Libyans he met — and the population as a whole — seem engaged and excited about the elections.

“Everyone says they hope there will be progress after an elected government is in place” on issues such as improving security especially along the border, handling detainees from the months of internal fighting and boosting the economy, said McInerney.

Since expectations are so high, there could be a “severe letdown” if the government doesn’t manage those expectations, according to Fadel Lamen, president of the American-Libyan Council.

“Elections will provide legitimacy, but the day after elections, all the problems and challenges will be the same,” said Lamen.

Part of the issue is Libyans don’t see themselves as a country that came out of a civil war — instead they view themselves as more like a Persian Gulf state that has a small population and wealth, he said. Libya has Africa’s largest proven oil reserves, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and although supplies were disrupted during the 2011 uprising, they have since began to recover.

In general, Libya benefits from seeing elections successfully held in the other “Arab Spring” nations of Tunisia and Egypt, said McInerney.

The danger is, unlike Tunisia and Egypt, most of Libya’s population is armed, including militias that fought Gadhafi forces during the revolution, McInerney noted, though he added he expected most people would accept the election results.

Small attacks on foreign consulates and on an election office in Benghazi over the weekend have raised concerns that there might be election day violence.

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