Protests and tears of joy as Libyans rush to vote

Reuters reports: Crowds of joyful Libyans, some with tears in their eyes, parted with the legacy of Muammar Gaddafi on Saturday as they voted in the first free national election in 60 years.

But in the eastern city of Benghazi, cradle of last year’s uprising and now seeking more autonomy from the interim government, protesters stormed polling stations and burned hundreds of ballot papers.

Libyans are choosing a 200-member assembly which will elect a prime minister and cabinet before laying the ground for full parliamentary elections next year under a new constitution.

Candidates with Islamic agendas dominate the field of more than 3,700 hopefuls, suggesting Libya will be the next Arab Spring country – after Egypt and Tunisia – to see religious parties secure a grip on power.

In Benghazi, witnesses said protesters stormed a polling station just after voting started and publicly burnt hundreds of ballot slips in a bid to undermine the election’s credibility.

One local election commission worker said two other polling stations in Benghazi had also had their ballots boxes looted.

At one polling station hit by the protests, a man was shot in the arm, local election official Ismail Al-Mjbali told Reuters. Blood from the attack stained the floor and the man had been taken to hospital, Mjbali said.

In the capital Tripoli, voting was smooth. A loud cry of “Allahu akbar” (“God is greatest”) went up inside a polling station there as the first woman cast her vote in a converted school building abuzz with the chatter of queueing locals.

“I can’t describe the feeling. We paid the price, I have two martyrs in my family. I am certain the future will be good, Libya will be successful,” Zainab Masri, a 50-year-old teacher, said of her first experience of voting.

“I am a Libyan citizen in free Libya,” said Mahmud Mohammed Al-Bizamti. “I came today to be able to vote in a democratic way. Today is like a wedding for us.”

Majdah al-Fallah flashes a broad smile and pumps the hands of shoppers in downtown Tripoli as she works potential voters on the campaign trail ahead of Libya’s landmark national assembly elections on Saturday.

A doctor by trade who lived in Ireland for years, Fallah is running for the Justice and Construction Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood which is tipped to do well. But her small team of election helpers often find the going tough.

“Sometimes when I give out the flyer some people reject it or take it and then rip it up in front of me because there are women on it,” said Huthaifa al-Harram, a 20-year-old male backer of Fallah and another female candidate on the same ticket.

“People say, ‘I don’t think women should play a role in the government – they don’t know what to do’,” Harram added.

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