Hundreds of protesters in Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi on Saturday burned ballots to demand greater representation as Libyans went to the polls in historic nationwide elections.
But reflecting the large support in the Mediterranean city for the country’s first free ballot in decades, voters flocked to the main road along the seafront by early evening, waving Libyan flags and chanting pro-election slogans.
“Sorry, sorry federalists, you have lost!” they shouted, on the road where hundreds had gathered after casting their vote for a national assembly.
“Hold your fingers high, you are free Libyans!” they chanted, waving their ink-stained fingers.
Earlier in the day, gunfire rang out after around 200 demonstrators filled a nearby square in Libya’s second city, the cradle of last year’s revolt that ousted dictator Moamer Kadhafi.
They were encircled by cars belonging to supporters of the election and later by at least a dozen military vehicles whose forces fired into the air in a show of strength.
But after the armed forces left, protesters attacked the civilian cars, damaging several.
“We are the ones who started the rebellion and now nobody is bothered about us. Nobody wants to talk to us. All we are asking for is a proper democratic process,” said one demonstrator, calling himself Fuad al-Obeidi.
“Let the constitution be written first then hold the elections with equal number of seats for every region. I have boycotted the election along with my family,” the 32-year-old government employee told AFP.
Abduljawad Shadwan, a 49-year-old lecturer who supports the election, condemned the protesters.
“I can understand their views but this is not the right way. We are building a new Libya and actions like these only deny the building of a new country,” said Shadwan.
“But this will not stop the progress of Libya. The result of the election will be unprecedented. It will be historic.”
Elsewhere, gunmen attacked a polling station at Tulay Tala school in Benghazi Jadida, a southwestern district, destroying ballot boxes and firing into the air before fleeing, witnesses said.
“Around 60 men and some women stormed the school at around 1:00 pm (1100 GMT) before breaking the ballot boxes and stealing some election material,” said Ahmed Saleh, an election observer at the school.
“Some armed men fired in the air. Some bullets hit the school building, shattering the glass. They were chanting ‘Allahu akbar’ (God is greatest),” he told AFP.
Earlier, voting was also marred by attacks by protesters calling for greater representation at one polling centre in the city and some other parts of eastern Libya.
They forced the closure of several polling stations outside Benghazi, but failed to dampen the enthusiasm of most of the city’s residents.
“I am voting today for a new Libya which we will create from the blood shed by our martyrs,” said Abdel Jalil Mansur, who works at Benghazi airport.
“The blood of our martyrs will not go to waste,” he said at Al-Hurriyah polling station in central Benghazi, carrying his five-year-old daughter Arwa, draped in the new Libyan flag.
Hueida Abdul Sheikh, a 47-year-old mother, hoped her vote would help build a better future.
“I feel like my life has been wasted so far but now my children will have a better life. All they need is a push, and I believe the new leaders will give that push so that children can achieve their ambitions,” she said.
Benghazi was the first city to rebel against the Kadhafi regime, with protesters, inspired by the Arab Spring uprising in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia, pouring onto the streets in February 2011.
That initial protest spread rapidly to engulf the entire country, ending with the capture and killing of Kadhafi on October 20 after a revolt bolstered by NATO air power.
On Saturday, groups of young men with machineguns patrolled near polling stations, offering what they said was “protection to voters and voting centres.”
But protesters demanding greater representation for eastern Libya forced several polling stations to shut.
Some were also closed in the eastern city of Ajdabiya, where a depot containing electoral material was torched earlier this week, an official in Benghazi said.
Another official said voting was disrupted at oasis towns in the southeast, including Jalo and Ojla, after federalists prevented a plane carrying polling material from taking off.
Abdeljawad al-Badin, spokesman of the self-appointed Cyrenaica Council, said voters in Quba near Derna were boycotting the election altogether.