Waiting for Democracy in Libya

Article Summary
Ali Sheayb was 15 years last time there were parliamentary elections in Libya. He writes that he did not expect his next opportunity would not come for another 47 years. Today, he is happy to have a say in the fate of his country, and hope the new leaders will be just.

I was 15 years old when the last Libyan parliamentary elections were held. At that age, I could not vote, but I vividly remember the Arab nationalist movement that invaded the country at that time and called upon Libyans to undertake social reforms and free themselves from the West.

As I eagerly followed the overwhelming electoral campaigns that dominated the news on several TV channels and independent newspapers, I did not know then that my first voting opportunity would not be for another 47 years, on July 7, 2012.

In 1964, five years before the late Muammar Gadhafi took power and eventually annulled the election results in the country, the candidates requested that Libya follow an independent oil policy. Many Libyans felt that the West had exploited Libya’s resources in the 1950s, and this sentiment gradually gained ground among Libyans.

Electoral campaigns used a specific language that appealed to voters, who were angry at the British and US military presence in Libya. Public squares were overwhelmed by catchy electoral signs and slogans, such as “Our oil must stay ours… Foreign military bases are undermining the country’s sovereignty.” I remember that independent newspapers were strongly criticizing the government at that time and condemning the corruption that became widespread in the country as oil revenues were increasingly flowing into Libya. However, under Gadhafi, critics could go to prison for being outspoken. It is worth noting that Libya was valuable property at that time.

Fearful of the Libyan people, the government marginalized prominent professors and journalists who applied to be candidates in the elections. As the winds of Arab nationalism blew through Libya from Egypt, where the army toppled the king in 1952. The concerns of Libyan officials started to grow.

The electoral results were surprising and raised doubts — they smelled of potential fraud.

Despite the authorities’ best efforts, several bold dissidents managed to win seats in parliament and use their power to exert pressure on the government.

King Idris dissolved the newly-elected parliament. This really upset me, mainly because the parliament included highly-educated individuals who endeavored to reform the country.

Other elections were held in 1965 and the results aroused the Libyan people’s suspicions this time as well. Four years later, in 1969, Gadhafi seized power.

To Gadhafi, democracy was “a bourgeois invention.” This was why he annulled the regular elections in the country until I reached the age of voting.

I had to wait until 1972 to get the chance to vote again. The elections were, at that time, held to decide on 20 representatives that would join the Federation of Arab Republics. This was an initiative by Gadhafi to merge Libya, Egypt and Syria.

As I was an assistant for one of the candidates, I missed my voting opportunity. I was too busy on the day of the elections.

The Arab nationalism experience did not thrive, and within five years, the Federation of Arab Republics collapsed and the right to political choice also vanished. A few days after the 1972 elections, which witnessed intensive electoral campaigns across the streets and squares of Tripoli, cleaning men were seen on the streets removing the electoral posters off of the wall.

Since that time, only pictures of Gadhafi were hung up in public places, and Libyan dinar notes also bore his image. Years later, a new fifty dinar note was issued, which also bore Gadhafi’s picture. As the pictures of the late president Kim Jong-il and his sons have for years overwhelmed all public places in communist North Korea, I thought that we were living in the same situation in Libya. Only Gadhafi’s pictures could be seen.

Large posters of Gadhafi invaded public places until the winds of the Arab Spring blew through North Africa. After a 42-year rule, under which Gadhafi was free to exercise his will as he wanted, the revolution arrived and paved the way for Libyans to once again choose those who were fit to politically represent them. 

Before registration doors closed in May, I headed to a polling station in my hometown of Masslatah to get an application that would allow me to vote for the first time in my life, at the age of 62.

I looked at my new electoral application and memorized my electoral number, because this number would allow me to join the millions of other Libyans who could now vote for the members of the National Assembly. This assembly would be entrusted with building a new Libya on the ruins of the institutions that existed under Gadhafi.

While on my way to the polling station on [July 7], I was impressed that there weren’t any pictures of Gadhafi. Posters of the candidates were spread throughout public places and on cars, places where only Gadhafi’s pictures could be seen previously.

The scene reminded me that my country was no longer ruled by one person and that it was no longer the privilege of a single entity.

After following three elections as an election monitor, I voted, for the first time, for my favorite candidate. I hope that this candidate will serve Libya and not single-handedly rule the country or exploit its resources.

Found in: ntc, libya, ghadafi, elections, dictator

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