In Libya election, joy and purple fingers: But also big questions

Libya's first election in 60 years began today amid joy and purple fingers. But militia violence, an absence of strong institutions, and a tussle between Federalism and a strong central government, loom large.

Abdel Magid Al Fergany/AP
A man in Tripoli shows off his ink-stained finger after voting, Saturday.

Libyans are at the polls today for the country's first free election in six decades. Reports from the ground so far are of joy and pride in many cases, but also carry hints of the ongoing militia violence that has plagued the North African country since the successful war to oust Muammar Qaddafi from power last year.

Reuters reports that in the eastern city of Benghazi, the heart of the uprising against Qaddafi, protestors stormed a handful of polling stations, and in the eastern town of Ras Lanuf, militias prevented voters from entering polling stations. Libyan officials said that 94 percent of the country's voting centers were open and peaceful, however. The country's last national vote was in 1965, a fixed affair in which political parties were barred from participation. Then Capt. Qaddafi led his coup four years later, and abolished the monarchy.

The isolated pockets of trouble on what otherwise appears to be bright (if punishingly hot) day are a reminder of how much work Libya has to do, and that a free election is the first tentative start to a difficult process, not an end in itself. This isn't to rain on the parade. But it would be foolish to lose site of the lessons of history, in which a free election was quickly overtaken by public grievances, and armed and angry losers.

As someone who covered the Iraq war from 2003-2008, my first reaction to the smiling "purple finger shot" is usually an internal cringe. That's not to say I oppose elections and democracy. It's just that an election by itself means very little, and is certainly no guarantee against horror and chaos in the near future.

Iraq's first free election in history in January of 2005 came as it descended into a civil war that reshaped the demographics of the country and left hundreds of thousands dead in its wake. That country's ancient Christian population is a fraction of what it was in 2003, and the Islamist government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has taken on an increasingly authoritarian cast.

To be sure, Iraq was much worse off then than Libya is today as it goes to the polls. Much of Iraq was in open warfare, and Shiite and Sunni death-squads were already so active that many candidates names were hidden from voters until just days before the election.

Libya is a more religiously and culturally homogenous place than Iraq, something that makes the prospect for short term stability more likely. But it also has a sharp, meaningful cleavage between the eastern half of the country and west, hordes of armed revolutionary militias unwilling to cede their own local power, and the task of building institutions from scratch; Qaddafi built a state where almost all power flowed directly from him and undermined (with a few exceptions) the maintenance and creation of the institutions that most modern states enjoy.

Building a judiciary and a civil service that shed the legacy of patronage and corruption is going to be a tough ask, and failure to do so will almost certainly extend the country's period of chaos. Managing the split between eastern and western Libya will also be tough. For geographic, historical and cultural regions, the territory now known as Libya has had political tension between east and west for over 2,000 years.

Those differences have extended into the modern era, and it's no surprise that the eastern half of the country fell from Qaddafi's grasp within days of the start of the uprising in February 2011, but western Libya, home to the national capital Tripoli, Qaddafi's tribesmen and where most of his patronage was doled out, held on until the fall. The trouble in Benghazi today centered around anger that the national parliament now being elected has 60 seats reserved for the east of the country, and 102 for the west (the sparsely populated desert south of the country, traditionally known as Fezzan, will get 38 seats).

The first step towards managing eastern suspicion of power-grab by Tripoli will be the writing of a constitution. That job was recently taken out of the incoming parliament's hands by Libya's interim government, and will instead by determined by a 60 member body to be elected at some unspecified future date. How that body is chosen, and what it accomplishes, will be crucial in seeing Libya put its recent turmoil behind it.

Money is key. Over 75 percent of Libya's crude oil exports are produced and shipped from the east. Earlier this week, there were reports that the key oil terminal at Ras Lanuf was shut by militias who support federalism. And the role of Islam in politics is another potential flash point. Libyan Islamists appeared to be running strong ahead of the election.

For now, Libya is enjoying a great day. But pay no mind to statements that indicate the country is somewhere near the finish line.

Like US United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice's triumphal video about the magic of elections from earlier this week. "On election day you, Libya's mothers, and fathers, sons and daughters will be able to walk into a voting center and decide your own future," she intones over a montage of delighted voters and waving Libyan flags. "I urge every one of you, every registered Libyan citizen to vote. As you do, Libyan women who joined the Libyan revolution side by side with men will be able to vote for and serve in your government as equals."

Perhaps. Or perhaps women will find their roles restricted by a new parliament packed with Islamists. It is far too soon to say.

Susan Rice on Libya's election:

Actually, colonial power Italy gave up control of the country after WWII and Libya became a fully independent state in 1951.

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