* Libyans go to polls on Saturday amid security concerns
* Many heavily armed militias across the country
* Some may disrupt vote or use violence to contest results
By Hadeel Al Shalchi
TRIPOLI, July 2 Samia Sahli and her daughters
browse the shops on a sunny day in Tripoli. A week before
election day, the streets are filled with families, but the
tranquil scene belies fears that Libya's first election in more
than a generation could be marred by violence.
"I am very excited to vote ... but I'm scared of the
security situation," Sahli, 30, said. "On the day ... I'll
probably wait a bit to make sure there are no security
Libyans head to the polls on July 7 to elect a 200-strong
national assembly that will, as well as appointing a prime
minister and making laws, help draft a new constitution for the
new country they hope to build. Almost 2.7 million people, or 80
per cent of those eligible, have registered to vote, suggesting
huge appetite for democracy after 42 years of dictatorship.
But clashes in far-flung corners of the vast North African
country and attacks on election organisers have raised doubts
over the interim government's ability to police the polls, let
alone deal with any gun-toting candidates who might dispute the
Almost a year after Muammar Gaddafi was ousted in a
NATO-backed rebellion, the government has struggled to convince
the myriad militias who helped topple him to lay down their
Though streets are mostly tranquil, gunfights can erupt
suddenly. With so many weapons available, communities or
individuals bearing grudges or involved in disputes make their
own justice rather than turning to the weak police or courts.
On Sunday, armed protesters calling for more autonomy in
Libya's east stormed the election commission in Benghazi,
smashing election materials and breaking computer equipment.
Emad al-Sayeh, the deputy head of the commission, said there
were not enough security forces deployed to stop the rioters so
they were forced to step back and let them storm the building.
Benghazi, 1,000 km (320 miles) east of the capital and the
cradle of Libya's revolution, has become a dangerous place.
British and U.N. diplomatic convoys have been attacked, as have
the Red Cross and the American and Tunisian consulates.
The attacks have been small, but raised fears of
election-day violence in a city where Islamist militias have
taken to the streets, tearing down campaign posters and
condemning a new democratic system they say is alien to Islam.
LAYERS OF SECURITY
The leader of Ansar al-Sharia, Arabic for Partisans of
Islamic Law, a small militia of Islamist hardliners, appeared on
television to denounce elections, potentially discouraging
voters and raising fears that polling stations may be targeted.
Wartime rebel prime minister, Mahmoud Jibril, who heads the
National Forces Front coalition, said security was a challenge.
"There is always potential for some elements, whether from
the previous regime or from those who don't believe in elections
... to do some (destabilising) activities," he said.
The government says it has a comprehensive security plan
that will deploy between 30,000 and 40,000 personnel on the day.
"There will be several layers of security. There will be
mostly police officers with no weapons in the polling stations,"
Deputy Prime Minister Mustafa Abu Shagur told Reuters.
"The Supreme Security Council will be the ones controlling
the checkpoints around the polling stations and close to the
polling stations. The military will be stationed in the 13
(voting) districts on standby in case they need to intervene."
But a recent uptick in violence suggests the security
challenges may be too formidable for the government to handle.
If many Libyans are too afraid to vote, feel intimidated into
voting one way or another or feel the ballot has not been
organised fairly, it could undermine the legitimacy of the whole
election and plunge Libya into a new cycle of instability.
The challenge was highlighted last month when a disgruntled
militia was able to drive past security forces and seize control
of Tripoli international airport for hours. Volunteer brigades
were forced to step in to help it take back control.
Mokhtar Lakhdar, head of the Zintani militia that controlled
the airport before handing it over to government forces in
April, said he would boycott the vote as no election could be
deemed representative until the country had stabilised.
"The government needs to work on building security first
before working on elections," he told Reuters.
In Western Libya, more than 100 people have been killed in
clashes between fighters from Zintan and the al-Mashashia tribe,
which did not join last year's rebellion. And in the south,
clashes have repeatedly erupted between Arab ex-rebels and
non-Arab Tibu tribes. Government forces have struggled to cope.
OBSERVER MISSIONS LIMITED
While the European Union, the Arab League, the African Union
and the Carter Center are sending in observers, security fears
mean many will stay away from the most remote or unstable areas,
where violations are most likely to take place.
"Our mission is limited and it can't provide a comprehensive
view of the process," said the Carter Center's Alexander Bick.
With so many groups already opposed to the elections and so
many challenges facing voters and organisers on the day, many
candidates are likely to appeal the outcome of the vote.
Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, where this was done through the
election commission or the courts, in Libya people may be
tempted to reach for their guns.
"The police force is just too weak at this point in terms of
communication, command structure and resources, and there are
just too many militia elements out there," said Ian Smith, head
of U.S-based democracy promotion group International Foundation
for Election Systems in Libya.
"There is the barest minimum of security plan so far ... The
elections commission is in discussions now about what to do in
the event that there is a security incident at a polling station
... These things need to be worked out."
(Additional reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian; Editing by Lin
Noueihed and Robin Pomeroy)