After 40 years of Qaddafi, Libya holds elections

In this Wednesday, July 4, 2012 photo, a Libyan woman waves the Al Wattan Party flag during a rally at the seaport of Tripoli, Libya. The Libyan National Assembly elections will take place on July 7, 2012. It will be the first free elections since 1969.
AP Photo/Manu Brabo

(AP) TRIPOLI, Libya - Abdel-Hakim Belhaj is a former rebel commander and a jihadist who once fought the Russians in Afghanistan. More recently, he has replaced his camouflaged fatigues with a business suit and founded an Islamist political party that is among the front-runners ahead of Saturday's parliamentary election.

It is the first significant step in Libya's tumultuous transition toward democracy after more than 40 years under Muammar Qaddafi's repressive rule.

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The campaign posters plastering the capital Tripoli are in sharp contrast to the decades in which Qaddafi banned political parties and considered democracy a form of tyranny. He governed with his political manifesto the "Green Book," which laid out his vision for rule by the people but ultimately bestowed power in his hands alone.

But Saturday's election, in which 2.8 million Libyans are eligible to vote, follows a ruinous civil war that laid bare regional, tribal and ethnic conflicts and left the country divided nine months after Qaddafi was captured and killed by rebel forces in his home city of Sirte.

While many Libyans hoped the oil-rich North African nation of 6 million would thrive and become a magnet for investment, a virtual collapse in authority has left formidable challenges. Unruly militias operate independently and deepening regional and tribal divisions erupt into violence with alarming frequency. Human rights groups have documented reports of widespread torture and killings of detainees.

The vote also will be a test of the strength of Islamist parties, which have gained influence in Libya and other nations following the ouster of secular regimes run by strongmen like Qaddafi and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak. Groups vying for power range from the politically savvy Muslim Brotherhood to the ultraconservative Salafis and former jihadists.

Flush with money, the Brotherhood's Justice and Construction party has led one of the best organized and most visible election campaigns. Young men and women in white shirts bearing the party's name and symbol — the horse — go door-to-door introducing candidates and canvassing votes across Tripoli.