Residents of the eastern Libyan city that served as the cradle of the uprising that toppled former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi voted for a local council on Saturday in an election that will test support for a proposal to set up autonomous rule for eastern Libya.
More than 400 people were running in the election for the 41 seats up for grabs on the local council of Benghazi, including supporters of autonomy for Cyrenaica, the eastern region that includes Benghazi. The election was the first in Benghazi since the 1960s and some voting centers were so crowded they stayed open an extra hour to accommodate voters.
“I hope this election is genuine ... because the people of Benghazi deserve to live a good life after what they went through and the sacrifices they paid to get to this point,” said Shoueb Idris, a 27-year-old oil engineer who is also a candidate in the race.
While there was little campaigning in the run-up to Saturday’s election, residents were enthusiastic about the vote, whose results are expected today.
Since Qaddafi’s ousting, the new government in Tripoli has struggled to impose its authority throughout the country or earn the wider trust of the people, especially in the east.
Top tribal leaders and commanders of militia groups in eastern Libya in March set up a semi-independent region named Barqa, leading to fears that the country could fragment into several states.
The self-styled Cyrenaica Congress has called for a boycott of Libya’s first national election, scheduled for June 19, saying it will not give fair representation to the east, but did not call for a boycott for Saturday’s elections. They say those elections are just another tool to “marginalize” the east.
“The federalists ... have problems with centralization and the national assembly,” said Mahdi al-Bahloul, an official with the commission that organized the vote. “They realize that the elections today are for the benefit of all of Benghazi.”
The drive for Cyrenaica autonomy has alarmed Libya’s ruling National Transitional Council, which says it could lead to the breakup of the country.
It has also unsettled oil markets, because the bulk of the oil fields in Libya are in the east.
If candidates who back autonomy perform well in the elections, it could show how well the autonomy movement will do in next month’s vote for a national assembly.
Tawfiq Huweidi, 41, was imprisoned for four years under Qaddafi, is also running for a seat on the local council.
“Today we have proved that Benghazi is capable of functioning as a democracy,” Huweidi said.
He echoed dissatisfaction with the country’s new rulers, who are viewed by many in Benghazi as remote and ineffective.
“We can make Benghazi a better and stronger city. We just need to take back power from those [who are] unelected and failing to provide us with services,” Huweidi said.