During the course of the so-called Arab Spring, politicians and officials have been fond of saying that country A does not resemble country B, and country B isn’t like country C.
When it comes to the first round of elections to be held after the downfall of a long-time leader, perhaps Libya is a case of this argument being right on the mark.
Some 3 million Libyans are set to go to the elections Saturday, and the voting process bears little resemblance to earlier rounds of polls in Tunisia and Egypt.
In both Tunisia and Egypt, observers remarked on the dividing line between religious conservatives and various liberal and secular groups. In Libya, however, the dividing line is far more serious: potential voters versus people who have no faith at all in the electoral process.
A helicopter carrying voting materials was shot down near Benghazi Friday, killing an election official, and this followed an arson attack the day before, which targeted a depot containing election material.
People in the eastern part of the country, the “cradle of the uprising” against Moammar Gadhafi, are enraged about receiving less than one-third of the seats in the next Parliament, and some have openly vowed to sabotage Saturday’s election; they have gotten a head start in the days preceding the poll.
Two central aspects in Libya stand out in comparison to its North African neighbors: tribes and oil. Despite the Gadhafi regime’s iron grip on power, it did little to foster a sense of nationalism, instead playing off tribes and regions against each other.
Moreover, the eastern part of the country which is rich in oil resources has already seen strikes and other demonstrations that have significantly brought down oil production levels due to the outrage over the election law arrangements.
Popular resentment against the Transitional National Council, the symbol of the post-Gadhafi regime, is high, and is expressing itself in the form of militias that are threatening the nation’s future as a united country.
Libya’s rulers must realize that they are only one step away from federalism, which if not handled correctly, means a break-up of the country.
The Libyan people have been deprived of their democratic rights for decades, whether under a monarchy or Gadhafi’s Green Book “Revolution.” While in theory holding a free, competitive election is a positive step, the proper groundwork must be set down ahead of time.
The challenges will be immense for whoever wins Saturday. One group might win the election, but the trick is to see an overwhelming majority of the country accept the results.
Those who oppose the entire election process must somehow be convinced to participate in the new Libya.
The coming days will witness whether Saturday’s election is the first step on the road to redemption for Libyan society, or just another step toward chaos and disintegration.