Jay Deshmukh, AFP
Last updated: 5 July, 2012

Arson attack destroys ballots in eastern Libya

Security concerns loom large in the minds of Libyans and international observers in the run-up to the first democratic elections after four decades of dictatorship under slain leader Moamer Kadhafi.

There is no shortage of actors who have threatened to boycott or sabotage Saturday’s landmark vote, raising tensions particularly in the east of the oil-rich country, cradle of the 2011 uprising that toppled Kadhafi’s regime.

Interim government spokesman Nasser al-Manaa has urged “all Libyans to participate, protect and take pride in these elections which are a step towards stability and development.”

Security services have warned that supporters of the former regime may seize the opportunity to disrupt the vote to elect a national assembly, which will be tasked with appointing a new government and a constituent authority.

The weeks before the elections have been marred by fighting between different communities, with bloody clashes in western hilltop towns claiming more than 100 lives and fighting in Kufra in the south leaving dozens dead.

And international organisations such as the United Nations and the International Committee for the Red Cross have become, along with diplomatic missions, a focal point of damaging but so far not deadly attacks.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group has warned that the electoral process in Libya is “imperilled by armed protesters who… are threatening to disrupt the vote in the eastern part of the country.”

On Thursday, arsonists in the eastern city of Ajdabiya set fire to a warehouse containing electoral material, a move that some officials warned could lead to a delay of the vote in that specific district.

And on July 1, armed men ransacked election offices in the city of Benghazi.

The interim government, Manaa said, is still negotiating with separatist groups in the east, which have been demonstrating and disrupting traffic on a strategic highway linking the east and west.

Such factions reflect a pro-federalism movement demanding a greater share of seats for the east in the national assembly. Currently, there are 100 seats for the west, 60 for the east and 40 for the south.

These are the loudest voices calling for a boycott of the elections. Islamist groups in the east also oppose the vote, saying the Muslim country needs no constitution other than the Koran.

Libya’s outgoing National Transitional Council insisted on Thursday that Islamic law (sharia) should be the “main” source of legislation and that this should not be subject to a referendum.

Libya’s interim rulers say that radical Islamists are a minority.

“There are problems here and there but we don’t think that they will affect the elections,” Salem Genan, deputy chairman of the NTC, has said. “We are very optimistic.”

But the authorities are taking no chances in a country awash with weapons. The interior ministry has enlisted 45,000 members of the Supreme Security Committee to ensure the safety of polling stations across 72 constituencies.

Army chief Yussef al-Mangush has said “the army has mobilised 13,000 troops for the nascent national army to support interior ministry forces to implement election day security plans.”

The army will take responsibility for transporting ballot papers and there will be special patrols on voting day to protect the coastline and safeguard Libyan airspace, he said.

Security forces will also man checkpoints on the perimeters of every town.

Omar al-Khadrawi, deputy interior ministry and head of the electoral security committee, said that security forces are on “high alert” and “an operations room has been set up in Tripoli.”

Former rebels who are still organised into brigades, some of which have been absorbed into government forces, are expected to play a role in ensuring security for the polls.

But they are also a source of potential problems.

Amnesty International warned on Thursday that there is no real control over these armed groups, which often clash with each other, and that they risk derailing an already delicate transition process.

“It is deeply depressing that after so many months, the authorities have failed so comprehensively to break the stranglehold of the militias on Libyan security,” said the rights group’s Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui.

“Without immediate action to stop abuses and lawlessness, there is a very real danger Libya could end up reproducing and entrenching the same patterns of violations we have seen over the past four decades,” she warned.

One Amnesty concern is the fate of thousands of people detained by militias.