Benghazi election offices attacked as Libya vote approaches
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Hundreds of protestors stormed Libya’s High National Election Committee in the eastern city of Benghazi on Sunday in protest against the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections. The attack, which comes in the run up to Libya’s first democratic polls since former leader Muammar Gaddafi’s downfall, highlights some of the challenges facing the fragile country as it endeavours to transition toward democracy.
Fires just outside Libya's High National Election Committee in Benghazi. Photo posted on Facebook by Samir Bayou.
Hundreds of protestors stormed Libya’s High National Election Committee (HNEC) offices in the eastern city of Benghazi on Sunday in protest at the country’s upcoming parliamentary elections. The attack, which comes in the run-up to Libya’s first democratic polls since former leader Muammar Gaddafi’s downfall, highlights some of the challenges facing the fragile country as it endeavours to transition towards democracy.
One of Libya's three main provinces, Cyrenaica, which occupies most of the country's east, pushed for regional autonomy in early March, in a move that was seen as a possible threat to efforts by the interim authorities, the National Transitional Council (NTC), to steer Libya out of instability. The NTC ultimately dismissed the oil-rich province’s drive to become a federal state.
The issue flared again as the country prepared for parliamentary elections to be held on July 7. An electoral law had allotted Cyrenaica 60 seats in parliament, the northwestern Tripolitania province (home to the capital Tripoli) 102, and the southwestern Fezzan province 38. Outraged by what they deemed inadequate representation in government, Cyrenaica’s pro-autonomy leaders have since called for a boycott of Saturday’s vote.
Tensions culminated on Sunday, after hundreds of people demanding Cyrenaica’s autonomy attacked the HNEC headquarters in Benghazi, which serves as the capital of the province. The building was left in ruins, with entire desks overturned and office equipment scattered on the ground. Outside, small fires burned here and there, and sheets of paper littered the pavement.
HNEC offices in Benghazi. Photos posted on Twiter by @abdallahelshamy.
Libyan authorities have struggled to restore stability to the country, which has been marked by frequent clashes since Gaddafi was overthrown in October 2011.
“Many protesters feel they were treated unfairly by Gaddafi because he took all the oil money out of the east”
Samir Bayou is a resident in Benghazi.
My brother had called me on Sunday to warn me that they were attacking the National Election Committee building. I was close to my home, and saw that a neighbour was getting ready to drive over there, so I decided to go with him so I could see what was going on and be a witness.
I got there at around 7pm. The area was swarming with people, hundreds of people, some of whom were carrying Kalashnikovs or other guns. There were also some young people with big knives. They were shouting slogans against the NTC and its leader Mustafa Mohammed Abdul Jalil. There was also a fire next to the fence near the building, and nobody stopped us from walking right up to the entrance, because everything was wide open. There we saw a pile of burning papers that looked like official documents.
Outside Benghazi's HNEC offices. Photo posted on Facebook by Samir Bayou.
They said they had attacked the building because they felt like the distribution of seats in parliament was unfair, and because they want Cyrenaica to be a federalised state. Part of the reason people think this way is because Cyrenaica has so much oil. They feel that they were treated unfairly by Gaddafi because he took all the oil money from the east and spent it elsewhere. I think they believe that if they are autonomous, they will be richer. But I believe in a unified Libya.
A charred Libyan election guide. Photo posted on Facebook by Samir Bayou.
Everything has gone back to normal since Sunday’s violence, the mood here is calm. While there are some people who are thinking about boycotting the elections next weekend, almost all of my friends, work colleagues and family are planning on voting. It’s the only way we will ever have a constitution. I plan on taking my mother with me so she can cast her ballot. I think that under normal circumstances, a lot of people wouldn’t bother voting. But since Sunday, I think a lot of people in Cyrenaica see the ballot as almost a challenge – they want to prove that there are Cyrenaicans who will vote, despite the attack.