TRIPOLI, Libya — On a muggy evening in Tripoli’s walled Old City, Joma el-Shwehdi gleefully slapped campaign posters on the sides of buildings.
What was the platform of the man he was supporting? What promises had the candidate made ahead of Saturday’s election for Libya’s national assembly?
Shwehdi shrugged. “I don’t know anything about that,” the lanky 24-year-old said as he smoothed a poster on the side of a stucco clock tower. “He’s a friend, and he lives near me, so I support him.”
After a politically stagnant 42 years during which the only leadership option was Moammar Gadhafi and the only ideology his Green Book, Libyans are dazzled, if a little befuddled, by the array of posters, pamphlets, radio commercials and even hot-air balloons festooning their cities and towns in the run-up to their first national elections in nearly half a century.
Most parties were formed in the past few months. Campaigning officially began only two weeks ago, and most voters don’t know anything about most of the people running for office. Even so, many are embracing the political process.
“I’m excited,” said Taha al-Turki, 53, a construction company employee. Sitting at an outdoor cafe in Tripoli where men smoked water pipes and sipped mint tea with almonds, he held up his new orange-and-white voter registration card and said, “This is our fate in our hands.”
More than 2.8 million people — more than 85 percent of eligible voters — have registered to vote for a 200-member national congress. The congress will appoint an interim government and select 60 people to write a constitution to be approved by voters in a referendum, setting Libya on the path to a permanent political system.
As with everything in post-Gadhafi Libya, the election is provoking a wide range of responses. Some Libyans complain that it has been too long in coming and that in the eight months since Gadhafi’s death, a weak transitional government has allowed armed militias to become entrenched.
Others argue that they are voting too early, saying that first the militias should be disarmed, the borders secured, and citizens given more time to familiarize themselves with the more than 3,700 candidates and 142 parties and civil society coalitions.
“To educate people in such a short time is a sort of mission impossible,” said Imad Alsayh, vice president of Libya’s high commission for elections. “We’re talking about reeducating people who have had nothing to do with elections for 50 years.”
The election was delayed from its June 19 date, allowing the election commission to confirm that all candidates were qualified and enabling disqualified ones to appeal. (Former regime members and members of the rebel Transitional National Council, for example, may not run.)
Candidates have posted curricula vitae online and hung posters with buoyant but vague slogans, such as “Libya for all and with all,” or, more mystifyingly, “Libyan first, then first.” And with no polling to tell them what voters want, candidates are treading carefully. Secularists make sure to mention Islam, and Islamists talk of civil society and women’s rights. As a result, all contenders tend to sound alike.
The country has been flooded with international and local observers and election specialists from the European Union, the United Nations, the Arab League and the African Union, as well as U.S. groups such as the National Democratic Institute and the Carter Center.
Overwhelmingly, Libyans say their top concern is security. Although normal life has resumed — shops stay open late and police officers direct traffic — the country still teems with weapons that rebels seized from government storehouses during the revolution.
There are pockets of instability — militias skirmishing in the provinces, bombs targeting foreign diplomats and weapons flowing unchecked across borders. And there is apprehension that some group — militant Islamists, Gadhafi loyalists or federalists, who want greater autonomy for Libya’s states — will try to disrupt the election.
Candidates speak broadly of national unity, transparency and rule of law, but few have developed concrete plans to put these ideas into practice.
Some parties are linked with well-known figures of the revolution. Former Transitional National Council officials Mahmoud Jibril and Ali Tarhouni have formed secular-leaning parties, and Islamist fighter Abdulhakim Belhadj, backed by a new party, is running for a seat.
But individuals hoping to represent their towns and neighborhoods lack a history of political activity. Instead, they are relying on name recognition.
“It’s a personality contest,” said Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf, president of the National Front Party, which was formed abroad in the 1980s in opposition to Gadhafi and is one of the few parties that existed before last year.
Although competing parties are pledging to work together after the election, Magariaf was skeptical. “Libyans tend to play solo,” he said. “Collective teamwork is not in our culture or our history. Even in our music, we don’t have orchestras, just soloists.”
Recently, Tarhouni, a University of Washington economics professor who returned to his native Libya last year to help lead the rebel government, drove around eastern Libya, stumping for his centrist party.
Stopping in villages in the area where he was born, wearing a suit and tie, he spoke to men in tribal robes and turbans. “We are confused,” an old man told him. “We are not educated, and we do not know about political parties.”
Tarhouni nodded, saying it was natural to be confused after so long with no elections. “We were like birds in a cage, and now the cage is open.”
The election of a national congress is crucial to defining Libya’s future, Tarhouni said later. “These are the founding fathers. These are the people who write the map of Libya.”
There are likely to be some founding mothers as well. Forty-five percent of registered voters are women, and parties are required to produce lists that alternate between male and female candidates.
With 540 women and 662 men on the party lists, the numbers are not exactly equal. But parties had a hard time finding enough women to run, said Rashid Maibub, an election commission official. “Some women, they didn’t want their photos to be there, and a few of them refused to be on TV,” he said, adding that photos and television appearances are not mandatory.
Some Libyans are exercising their right to abstain. In Benghazi and other cities, people have stormed the election commission office to protest the number of seats allotted for the eastern part of the country.
Noting that the east was the seat of the revolution, some there say they will boycott the elections to protest what they think is favoritism by the transitional government toward the west in allocating scholarships and money for infrastructure.
But more Libyans seem inclined to give the elections a chance.
“We’re putting all our bets on this national congress,” said Hatim Mohamed Idris, 41, an entrepreneur who is building an underground hotel to showcase his tribe — a dream he said he could not pursue under Gadhafi.
As he sat in a cafe in the village of Yefran that overlooked a valley, shooting echoed from the next mountain over, where militias were battling.
“Since the death of Gadhafi, I took my weapon, oiled it and stored it,” he said. “If something goes wrong with this national congress, I will take it out again.”