Will Elections Bring Stability to Post-Gaddafi Libya?

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MAHMUD TURKIA / AFP / Getty Images

A Libyan man shows his documents to electoral officials as he registers for the upcoming elections in Tripoli on May 1, 2012. Libya opened voter and candidate registration centres, in another step towards its goal of holding elections for a constituent assembly in June

Idriss el-Orebi hardly looks like a fighter, yet the portly 46-year-old businessman was a commander in last year's revolution against former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. With his cardboard-box factory in Benghazi shuttered by the war, Orebi led a unit of 300 men into battle across eastern Libya. He had zero military training, but says, "I used to shoot bunnies with a shotgun. So I learned how to fight in five minutes."

Orebi is learning another skill now: electoral politics. Earlier this month, he drove to a government office in Benghazi to register as a candidate in Libya's first elections since Gaddafi — indeed, its first elections in 60 years — dismissing friends who said the process was rigged in favor of Tripoli's politicians and that they would lord over eastern Libya much the way Gaddafi did for nearly 42 years. "I decided not to boycott the elections, even though everybody told me to do so," he says, speaking at a meeting in this town east of Tripoli, where dozens of commanders gathered to form a national union of rebel fighters. Despite his own fears about Libya's future, Orebi says he hopes elections might help bring some order to the country's chaotic political system. "We are expecting a real lack of security, which could result in the collapse of ministries," he says.

Nearly eight months after Gaddafi's violent death and the end of the war, Libya's interim government is scrambling to register about 3 million voters, as well as dozens of new political parties, for elections that are scheduled for June 19. About 1,400 candidates and about 71 political parties have applied to run, according to Libya's new elections committee. The vote will be for a 200-member assembly that is supposed to serve just as long as it takes to write a new constitution and prepare Libya for parliamentary and presidential elections around mid-2013. Members of the interim government and the 85-person National Transitional Council (NTC) are excluded from running as candidates this time around, as is any remnant from Gaddafi's dictatorship.

The task of introducing democracy after Gaddafi's dysfunctional one-man rule is daunting. Very few Libyans have ever voted, and no wonder: Gaddafi's Green Book, the country's doctrine for decades, declared political parties to be "a contemporary form of dictatorship" and elections a process of "buying and manipulating votes." With the Green Book gone and Gaddafi dead, NTC members say it's been intensely difficult filling the political vacuum and that they need to hold elections quickly in order to stabilize the country and instill a sense of normality. Says Ashur Shamis, an advisor for the Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib, "This is a country we are starting from scratch."

Whoever wins the June elections will have their work cut out for them. In theory, the government is responsible for running hospitals, schools and other public services and all should be well funded, since Libya earns billions in oil revenues. In reality, however, public facilities are dismal and decrepit and the central government wields little control over any of them. Instead, politicians say each region has jerry-rigged its own solutions just to cope month by month.

In a traffic jam near Tripoli's Martyrs Square one afternoon, men in camouflage fatigues hopped out to direct cars, since the capital, a city of 2 million people, has no traffic control. Only two out of the 29 prisons destroyed in the war have been rebuilt, and most prisoners remain in the custody of local militia — including Gaddafi's most powerful son, Saif al-Islam, who is jailed in Zintan. Few courts are operating normally, according to officials. Construction projects have been frozen since February 2011 and cranes hang immobile over Tripoli. "The leadership has been incapable of running Libya for the last eight months," says Fathi Baja, head of the NTC's political and international affairs committee, who is from Benghazi. "There was a big show of putting in people from different areas of Libya. But that didn't mean they represented Libyans."

The crucial question now is who does represent Libyans — and perhaps most importantly, who can claim to be the worthy heirs of the revolution. The situation is particularly tense because Gaddafi's mountain of weaponry is now in the hands of dozens of militia groups, who have retained their autonomy and massive powers, including the ability to arrest and detain people. The central government has so far failed to bring them under any national control. Then there's the contentious issue of who actually fought the war. When the government offered to pay fighters who fought in last year's war, hundreds of thousands of people signed up. The program was scrapped after payments rose to about $1.2 billion — officials said many recipients had never lifted a weapon and that many names on the list belonged to dead people — but the cancellation enraged fighters who had not yet been paid. On March 8, a day after Shamis spoke to TIME in the government headquarters in Tripoli, about 200 armed men stormed the building's gates in vehicles mounted with anti-aircraft guns and fought a pitched battle with government forces, killing one person.

This was not the only recent armed clash. In late April, a truck transporting 2 million Libyan dinars (about $1.6 million) from Benghazi's Central Bank to a bank in the eastern town of Tobruk was ambushed by armed men who, it turned out, were from the militia hired to secure the Central Bank. Tobruk's militia — a separate fighting force — opened fire on the rebels, killing several of them.

On May 8, hundreds of fighters from across Libya converged in Tajoura, about 10 miles east of Libya, to form a national "brigades union" to assert themselves as the country's true revolutionaries. Commanders say their intention is to set themselves apart from the "fake" fighters, who they say are strutting around the country armed with weapons, claiming to have fought Gaddafi's forces. "They have no legitimacy, they are smugglers and thieves," says Fauzy Bokatif, who commanded much of the rebel force in eastern Libya last year. "They should give up their weapons."

But there is another reason for the new militia organization: it's also meant to be an armed force capable of being mobilized. Bokatif says the brigades' union has about 5,000 men and that their arsenal includes artillery, tanks and heavy weaponry. "We'd like them to be integrated into the military but there is no process for it," he says. That process could begin once a government is elected, either in the June vote for a constitution-writing assembly, or when a permanent government is elected sometime next year.

Given Libya's upheaval, the fighters are keeping their options open. Democracy, after all, is an unknown concept around here, says Orebi, the businessman-turned-fighter who is now running for office. "If the election works we can influence a lot of things," he says, explaining why he wants to be a member of the new assembly. "And if it doesn't, we will have this union of revolutionaries as a standby." Libya's war is over. The battle for the future, however, has just begun.