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Election To Start New Chapter In Libya's History


Libya, holds its first election this weekend. About nine months after that former ruler Moammar Gadhafi was captured and killed, voters are choosing an assembly and writing a new chapter in their country's history. During our recently revolutionary road trip across North Africa, we visited Libyan students who write very old chapters. They scratch verses of the Quran onto gray boards as an aid to memorization.

They're studying at a religious university in the city of Zlitan. Some left school last year to fight in last year's uprising, and now they are preparing to vote. Have you guys heard much about the election that coming up soon?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through translator) Sure.

INSKEEP: Two young men have sat to talk on the floor of a dorm room demonstrated one of Libya's many political divides.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

INSKEEP: Students Zuer(ph) Mohammed says the most important thing for him is a constitution with Islamic law.

ZUER MOHAMMED: (Speaking foreign language)

INSKEEP: He says, I don't to vote for a secularist, someone who separates religion and state. As we talk, his phone lights up with a photo of one of his heroes, Osama bin Laden. Zuer favors the party linked with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, but a fellow student raises a finger to disagree.

ABDUL AKMAN: (Speaking foreign language)

INSKEEP: Abdul Akman(ph) prefers a more inclusive coalition. He suggests it's a distraction to go about Islamic law. His preferred leader, the former interim prime minister, Mahmoud Gebril, is trying to assemble a variety of groups. I don't know what it's called here. In America, this would be called a debate. The debate grows edgy when the student who likes the Muslim Brotherhood suggests the rival coalition is secularist, which in Libya can almost mean atheist. Akman defends his side, but smiles in the end.

AKMAN: (Speaking foreign language)

INSKEEP: So that debate ended politely enough, but Libya faces many questions about the role of Islam, divides between rival regions of the country and much more. James Hider is a correspondent for the Times of London. He's covering the Libyan elections, and joined us from Tripoli. Welcome back to the program.

JAMES HIDER: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So what does an election look like in Libya? Do you see campaign rallies, posters on the streets?

HIDER: Yes. In fact, the campaigning ended last night at midnight. A lot of people complained that they're not quite sure who the candidates are, but most people here are extremely enthusiastic. They see this as a chance to get rid of the period of uncertainty that followed the revolution. You had a weak government that hadn't really been able to do much, and hasn't really been able to control the militias here.

INSKEEP: How many parties are competing for power here?

HIDER: I mean, there's more than a thousand parties and candidates who have been running for this election. It's a very complicated system, but there are four main parties that are running - two of them are Islamist, two of them are mostly secular, but have some Islamist elements in them. So, a lot of people aren't sure who they're going to vote for, even now, but that has played in the hands of Mahmoud Gebril, who is one of the leaders of the revolutionary government. A lot of people know him, so they will be voting for him.

INSKEEP: In addition to people not being sure who they're going to vote for, isn't there some lack of clarity about what they're voting for? Until the other day, the people were voting for what looked like it'd be a constitutional assembly to write a constitution.

HIDER: Yes. Literally, just yesterday they changed the rules. They were going to vote for a parliament that would then appoint the constitutional assembly to write the constitution in three months, but there's been a lot of federalism calls, in the east in Benghazi, which is where the revolution started last year. They have been saying that the east has suffered so much under Gadhafi it didn't get the investment, it was ignored. But it also had all the oil.

So they have been saying that they should be better represented. They should get more seats. And there have been some attacks. A group of people burned one of the election commission offices last weekend. Some armed men have cut the road from the east to the west, so there are some very angry people out there, but it doesn't look like that is going to actually disrupt the election.

INSKEEP: OK. So the rules have all changed, but an election is going forward, and people do seem ready to vote, you're saying?

HIDER: Yes, definitely. What they want now is a stronger government that can actually start building the institutions of the state. They want a central police force, they want a national army that will take over security affairs, take the guns away from these militias and give people a sense of normality, and they're hoping that they will then encourage foreign investment.

People are saying this could be like Dubai. It's a big country with a lot of oil, very small population, fairly well-educated population, and they're saying there's a huge amount of potential. But, of course, there's also these worries that there could be more federalism calls, there could be perhaps violence between tribes from the east and the west, and that that could spoil their chance of grasping this opportunity.

INSKEEP: James Hider of the Times of London is in Tripoli. Thanks very much.

HIDER: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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