Traditional rift between the country’s east and west sparks violence

Libyan voters headed to polling stations on Saturday to elect a National Assembly that faces the daunting task of resurrecting a state that can unite a people divided along regional and tribal lines.

Saturday’s election is the first after strongman Muammar Qadhafi was toppled and killed during a West-backed uprising last year. The 200-member Assembly will choose a Prime Minister and a Cabinet. However, a ruling on Thursday by the outgoing Transitional National Council (TNC) denies the Assembly the authority to select a panel for drafting a new constitution. Instead, fresh elections are to be held for a 60-member Constituent Assembly that will define the basic laws to steer the country’s political transition. Following the adoption of the new constitution, Libya is expected to hold yet another general election for appointing a President and establishing a Parliament for a longer term.

The run-up to the elections mirrored the restiveness along the traditional fault line that divides the western Tripolitania region and eastern Cyrenaica with Benghazi at its heart. On July 1, protesters stormed an office of the electoral commission in Benghazi. They demanded a “fair” distribution of parliamentary seats, rejecting the allocation of only 60 berths in the 200-member Assembly, compared to 100 seats that are up for grabs in the western region with Tripoli as its hub. On Friday, angry demonstrators thronged a central square in Benghazi, protesting against their perceived underrepresentation in Parliament.

Their fury, born out of a sense of inequality that has deep historical resonance, exploded once again on Saturday after the polls opened. Reuters is reporting that protesters stormed a polling station and publicly burned hundreds of ballot papers to undermine the credibility of the polls. They also looted ballot boxes at two other polling stations in Benghazi, marking polling irregularities that acquired a violent edge when a man was shot at another polling booth.

The regional rift in Libya is being widened dangerously with the formation of the self-appointed Cyrenaica National Council (CNC), which has a military wing — a cause for concern since these armed men, functioning outside governmental control, can end up confronting other armed militias in the west such as the powerful Zintan and Misurate brigades.

The growing east-west animosity also critically endangers the wellbeing of the country’s lucrative oil sector — the lifeline of Libya’s economy as well as factor in the upkeep of global energy security. On Friday, armed groups in the east sealed Libya’s oil exports to reinforce their demand for greater representation in the new national assembly.

Voting in the Kufra area in the Sahara south, where 40 seats are being contested, is also turning out to be problematic as rival tribes are engaged in fierce clashes in this area. Enthusiasm for polling was perceptibly low in Sirte, Qadhafi’s hometown on the edge of the Mediterranean.

Unlike most other parts, polling appeared to progress relatively smoothly in the capital Tripoli.

Analysts point out that in tune with the outcome in Tunisia and Egypt, Islamists are likely to do well in the polls. Two Islamist parties — the Justice and Construction party, an offshoot of Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood, and the Al-Watan partly, led by former CIA detainee and militant Abdel Hakim Belhadj is expected to have a decent outing in the polls. However, ideology does not appear to be driving voting preferences in Libya. Instead, most voters appeared inclined to ballot along the lines of tribe and clan.

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