BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) - Swept up in the euphoria of Libya’s first free national vote in six decades, voters in the eastern city of Benghazi braved anti-election protests on Saturday to pour into polling stations.
But the mood of celebration should not fool anyone: in the city that was the cradle of last year’s uprising against Muammar Gaddafi and remains the hub of Libya’s lucrative oil sector, the revolution is far from over yet.
Long a political hotbed that nurtured earlier attempts to unseat Gaddafi, Benghazi is now the focal point of a widespread sense among easterners that post-Gaddafi authorities are still neglecting their region economically and socially.
Many queuing to cast their ballots in Benghazi said they were using their votes simply to back candidates in a new interim assembly whose main policy drive will be to demand greater political representation for the region.
“We were able to get rid of the regime of Muammar Gaddafi with all his power and resources,” local women’s rights activist Salwa Homi said of the insurgency which, with the help of NATO bombs, ended 42 years of hardline Gaddafi rule.
“Don’t you think we can do the same to a few people we’ve elected ourselves?”
Nearly 18 months ago, the arrest of human rights activist Fethi Tarbel sparked a riot in Benghazi that triggered a civil war, the fall of Tripoli 1,000 km (630 miles) to the west and ultimately the capture and killing of Gaddafi himself.
The immediate bone of contention now is the fact that the east will get only 60 out of 200 seats in the new assembly being voted in on Saturday and which will appoint a new prime minister and prepare the ground for parliamentary elections in 2013.
But the bigger issue is what status Libya’s second-largest city will have in the new country taking shape and what stake it will have in national oil supplies currently running at 1.6 million barrels a day - the bulk of which are in the east.
“We contributed the most blood and the most sacrifice to the country and to the revolution,” Hamed al-Hassi, a former rebel who leads a military body originally charged with securing the east but which has since fallen out with the interim government.
“The country will be in a state of paralysis because no one in the government is listening to us,” said Hassi.
To prove the point, armed gunmen disrupted activities at three eastern oil ports on the eve of the vote, to protest against the lack of representation in the new assembly. The blockage was expected to last 48 hours, port officials said.
Anti-election protesters stormed at least four polling stations in Benghazi on Saturday, with several hundred ballot papers from one being publicly burnt in a town square in a bid to discourage voters from turning out.
That did not work for many Benghazi locals who do not share the federalist goals of some protesters but who nonetheless say they have real grievances.
“I was planning on boycotting the elections because I am unhappy about the small number (of seats) - we deserve more,” said Salwa al-Tajouri, 35, who moved back to Libya from France after the revolution last year.
“But then last night when the protests happened and people got hurt I said that’s not what I stand for,” she said of the unrest leading up to the poll.
Others in Benghazi could not bring themselves to vote, labeling the election a sham and arguing post-revolutionary Libya was not yet ready for a viable election.
“We don’t have a law to control political parties, we don’t have a constitution yet. How can they consider this a legitimate congress?” said 25-year-old student Abdelwahab Al-Ghazali.
In what was intended to be a concession to the east, the interim government in Tripoli on Thursday abruptly removed from the new assembly the right to choose the panel who will draft the new constitution.
That move was barely registered on the streets of Benghazi on Saturday. Instead, many locals are already gearing up for what could be a fierce tug-of-war with Tripoli over who wields power in the new Libya to come - and whether it will be decided through the ballot box or on the streets.
“Benghazi has always the leading city in political activism,” said engineer Khaled Jeroushi. “Even in Tripoli people say that if Benghazi fails then elections will fail everywhere in Libya.”
Editing by Mark John and Pravin Char