TRIPOLI, Libya — Libyans filled with optimism went to the polls Saturday for their nation's first multi-party elections in 60 years. It was an emotional moment for people who have lived through 42 years of dictatorship and a bloody revolution.
Many young men were fighting the forces of Moammar Gaddhafi just nine months ago. Today, some of those same young men were presiding over a raucous intersection of celebratory horn honking, as Libyans headed to and from the voting stations.
At one school in a working-class neighborhood, women celebrated and showed off their ink-stained fingers, evidence that they had voted. Inside what is usually the school's computer room, procedures were followed with precision and respect.
Recent university graduate Farah Moterdy, 23, was among those waiting their turns.
“My heart is beating quickly and I'm very happy and I wish that my vote makes change," she said.
Islamists are expected to do well in the election but the aspiring English teacher said she would not be voting for them, fearing they would try to restrict women's rights.
“Yesterday I was crying when I see the pictures of the people who are in the election,” Moterdy said. “Who will we choose of them? We want to make the future for Libya. It depends on us. This is what I know. It depends on us.”
Libya got an unexpected visitor for the election - U.S. Senator John McCain, who was an early advocate of the NATO intervention that helped defeat Gaddhafi.
“Already we started early at the polls and we observed the people who enthusiastically have exercised the fundamental right of people if you’re going to have a democracy and that is a fair election," he said. "There were some problems in the eastern part of the country. I’ve been informed that most of those problems have been resolved.”
There was some anti-election violence in the eastern city of Benghazi, where the revolt started a year-and-a-half ago, but the voting continued. Some militias and tribes want more regional autonomy and more clout in the central government.
Libya's Uprising to Elections
Feb. 2011: Protests erupt after a human rights campaigner is arrested in Benghazi
Mar. 2011: U.N. Security Council authorizes no-fly zone over Libya
Aug. 2011: Rebels take Moammar Gadhafi's compound in Tripoli
Oct. 20, 2011: Gadhafi is killed, days later the National Transitional Council declares Libya liberated
Jan. 2012: Clashes erupt between former rebel forces in Benghazi
Mar. 2012: NTC officials in Benghazi campaign for regional autonomy
Jun. 2012: Government struggles to ensure security, postpones election until July
Back at the school in Tripoli, men waited patiently for their turns. They are among nearly three million people registered to vote, about 80 percent of those eligible. The voters are choosing among more than 3,700 candidates for 200 seats in a National Assembly that will form an interim government and write a new constitution.
“I feel free. I can smell it. I can land at the airport without any fear,” said businessman Suleiman Giornazi.
Like many voters, Giornazi could hardly speak about the election without getting emotional. And he said he is not worried about the violence in the east or continuing unrest in some other parts of the country.
“Nothing bothers me,” he said. “The only thing that bothers me is Gadhafi, and he's gone. And we will be all right. This is hiccups and doesn't mean nothing to us. We for sure will get over it.”
His optimism was shared around the capital, as Libyans of all ages put their country's problems aside and celebrated the simple but hard-fought triumph of their first post-revolution election day.