TRIPOLI, Libya — Naima Naggar stood in a Tripoli polling station Saturday, her index finger stained with indelible ink, as she voted in Libya’s first free elections in decades, hoping to heal tribal divisions and bring this battered nation closer to democracy.
She and other Libyans voted in high spirits to move beyond last year’s civil war and the late Moammar Kadafi’s 42-year repressive rule. Yet distrust and tension hang over the country, which has been marred by lawlessness and political schisms fueled by heavily armed militias.
“I’m very happy. But now we have to start rebuilding our country,” said Nagger, 46. “We need education and healthcare …. We need law here, because, during Kadafi’s time, it was his law only.”
Libyans are choosing a 200-member national assembly, aimed at bringing together the country’s disparate ethnic and tribal factions. The assembly will select a prime minister and Cabinet, paving the way for parliamentary elections next year.
“Most Libyans support this election. They see it as an important step,” said Ahmed Bealy, who was supervising the vote in central Tripoli. He said as many as 400 people voted in the first hour at his polling station. “Most people feel that we have to get on with building a new Libya.”
But the nation’s fissures, especially around the eastern city of Benghazi that was the bastion of the uprising against Kadafi, were clear and dangerous. The east was marginalized under Kadafi, and many fear the new national assembly and the future constitution will favor the west.
Protesters in the east burned voting papers amid reported attacks on polling stations. An election worker was killed Friday night when militiamen shot down a helicopter carrying voting supplies.
Tribal warfare in the southern town of Kufra has become so fierce that election observers were forced to stay away during Saturday’s vote. But in the capital, Tripoli, cars filled the central square, horns blaring in celebration. Libyan flags fluttered, waved from rooftops and from windows, and by gathering crowds.
In the suburb of Souk Jumaa, a son pushed his father’s wheelchair, steering the man into a polling station. Cameras clicked as men struck poses for the international press corps and called for freedom and democracy and liberty. “God is great,” they shouted.