July 5, 2012 / 2:32 PM / 7 years ago

Gaddafi hometown sidelined as Libya set to vote

SIRTE, Libya (Reuters) - Stepping over the charred debris of what had been his home in the shattered town Muammar Gaddafi once favored, Miftah al-Farjani is adamant he will not vote when Libya holds its first election in half a century on Saturday.

“Why should I vote? Look at my house, look at what my life has become,” Farjani says, pointing to a floor covered in rubble and to the blackened walls. “What am I going to get from these elections? We have been suffering for months.”

Nine months after the end of last year’s uprising, the 33-year-old school teacher, a resident of Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte, feels sidelined as the new Libyan order takes shape.

Like many residents of the town transformed by Gaddafi from a fishing village into a model city, Farjani feels Sirte is paying a heavy price for being the last bastion in the former leader’s fight to hold onto power after 42 years.

Its predicament underlines the challenge Libya’s new rulers face in reconciling groups with long-running grievances and embracing those who chose not to back the revolt - whether out of fear, or because they supported Gaddafi, or because they were benefiting in some way from his rule.

If the new government is unable to give Sirte or nearby Bani Walid, another former Gaddafi stronghold, a stake in the new Libya, it risks repeating the mistakes of the past by alienating part of the country and storing up trouble for the future.

Few can forget that the uprising began in eastern Libya, a region that was favored under the monarchy and sidelined by Gaddafi after his 1969 coup, leaving resentment to fester.

“It’s no longer ‘I am pro-Gaddafi’ or ‘I am anti-Gaddafi’. Now it’s more ‘Am I a part of this new Libya or not? Can I find a place for myself, my family, my tribe, my city, my region in this new Libya?’” said Hanan Salah of Human Rights Watch.

“That is something that is in the making in the next few months. Will these people feel that they have a place, that they have a voice, that they are taken into account.”

FINDING A VOICE

Nationwide, some 80 percent of eligible voters, around 2.7 million people, have registered to vote on Saturday for a 200-member national assembly that will help draft a constitution for the new country they hope to build.

In Sirte and the surrounding areas, election officials say a third of the 120,000-strong population has signed up.

The campaign posters that cover walls and shop windows in Tripoli are conspicuously few and far between in Sirte.

Only a few dozen election banners line the main road in the centre. A sheet hanging between a traffic light and a lamp post flaps in the wind. In bright red letters its urges locals: “do not put up your posters until we have reached our goals.”

In the seafront neighborhood known as District Two, where Gaddafi is believed to have hidden in his last days, the destruction is still evident all around.

Some houses have crumbling roofs or entire walls missing. Most are scarred with bullet holes. Windows are shattered or blown off. The remains of burnt-out cars still stand in garages.

After Gaddafi was captured in Sirte and killed in October, his tribe seethed with anger. But in a country where a new law banning the glorification of Gaddafi was passed by the ruling council and then scrapped by the supreme court, no one dares express nostalgia for the old regime.

With the police and courts weak and guns readily available, Libyans have settled their own scores since the revolution and clashes have occasionally broken out between former rebels and clans that backed Gaddafi or stayed on the sidelines.

Many who supported Gaddafi have since fled Libya, fearful they would meet the same gory end as the long-time leader. The residents of Sirte can only hope that politicians elected to lead the new Libya will prioritize reconciliation.

If few show up to vote, the legitimacy of the election and the new assembly may be lacking in the eyes of Sirte residents. That could further undermine a process already under attack from radical Islamists and those demanding more autonomy in the east, and which could also be compromised by violence.

“Who am I going to vote for if I am living like this and my house is destroyed? Just tell me who am I going to vote for?” Jamal al-Mabrouk, a District Two resident, said, ripping at his shirt in frustration.

“I have no home. Is this a life? Is this Libya? We are one family there is no difference between the Gaddafis or Warfallis or people from Misrata. Libya is one, we are all brothers.”

CONVINCING PEOPLE TO VOTE

After rebel fighters backed by NATO captured swathes of Libya including the capital, Gaddafi sought sanctuary among his kin and loyal supporters in the city he had groomed as an international hub with its own grand conference centre.

Gaddafi had lobbied in vain for Sirte to host the headquarters of the African Union and the town, in the middle of Libya’s coastline and on the edge of its deep desert hinterland, had done well out his patronage over the decades.

But, during an eight-week siege, parts of the town were reduced to rubble in fighting and, locals say, by vindictive rebel forces from elsewhere.

The windows of the Ouagadougou conference centre, which once served as a showcase for foreign dignitaries, are now shattered. In one office of the sprawling complex, the local branch of the national election commission is busy preparing for the polls.

Posters illustrating how to vote hang on the walls.

“In the beginning it was difficult to convince people to register for the vote as they felt forgotten,” said Abubaker Ali, the election commission coordinator for Sirte.

“We started educating people about the vote and they started to come. They understand it’s the only way to get results ... They see that the election is their way out of this crisis and it’s a show of good will.”

While silently longing for the security and privilege of their old lives, some accept that their only hope of moving on lies in embracing the new political system and ensuring their voice is heard in the national assembly.

Government officials speak of Sirte in conciliatory tones and pledge it will be treated fairly. Both the prime minister, Abdurrahim El-Keib, and chairman of the ruling National Transitional Council, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, have visited.

“We’ve heard them speak, but we’ve seen nothing on the ground,” one local, Hamad Amar Mashri, 52, said. “We are for elections but that does not mean we are satisfied after all these months.”

Mashri, who lives with his family in two rooms on the ground floor of his damaged house, said he had registered. But stepping over dusty shoes, broken furniture and debris, he admitted: “I don’t know yet if I will go to vote ... I will decide on the day.”

There are 45 independent candidates standing in Sirte competing for just two seats. One, Abdeljalil Mohammed Abdeljalil, a 29-year old physiology teacher, said he was campaigning for the rebuilding of Sirte and for security.

“Some people do still like Gaddafi,” he told Reuters. “If they get the right treatment, see their city rebuilt, they will forget Gaddafi.”

Editing by Lin Noueihed and Robin Pomeroy

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