Libyans started voting on Saturday in the first parliamentary election since last year's ouster and slaying of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi, taking a major step forward in the country's tumultuous transition to democratic rule.
The election for a 200-seat legislature is being held amid intense regional rivalries, fears of violence and calls for a boycott. However, lines began to form outside polling centers more than an hour before they were scheduled to open in the capital Tripoli. Policemen and army soldiers were guarding the centers, searching voters as well as election workers.
"I have a strange but beautiful feeling today," said dentist Adam Thabet, waiting outside a polling center in the capital Tripoli. "We are free at last after years of fear. We knew this day was coming, but we were afraid it could take long to come."
Libya's election is the latest fruit of Arab Spring revolts against authoritarian leaders. It is likely to be dominated by Islamist parties of all shades, a similar outcome to elections held in the country's neighbors Egypt and Tunisia, which had had their own, though much less bloody, uprisings.
There are four major contenders in the race, ranging from a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated party and another Islamist coalition on one end of the spectrum to a secular-minded party led by a Western-educated former rebel prime minister on the other.
"This is history in the making," declared 26-year-old medic Farid Fadil as he waited to vote outside a polling center in Tripoli. After four decades of Gadhafi's erratic one-man rule, Fadil like many Libyans was overjoyed at the chance to choose his country's leaders: "We were ruled by a man who saw himself as the state."
In the oil-rich east, where there is a thriving autonomy movement, calls for a boycott and pre-election violence have cast a shadow over the vote. On Saturday, protesters torched ballot boxes in 14 out of 19 polling centers in the eastern town of Ajdabiya, according to former rebel commander in the area Ibrahim Fayed.
But in Tripoli, voters were jubilant. Libyans flashed the "V" for victory sign as they entered polling centers. Motorists honked their horns as they drove past to greet the voters lined outside. Others shouted "Allahu Akbar," or "God is Greater," from their car windows.
"The turnout is extraordinary," said Mohammed Shady, an election monitor. "Everyone is being very cooperative. They want the day to be a success and it will be."
The election lines brought together Libya's women, men, young and children accompanying their parents. There were women in black abayas, or black robes, bearded men, elderly men and women on wheelchairs or using canes to support themselves. Some voters arrived at polling centers waving the Libyan red, green and black flag or wrapping it around their shoulders.
Voters distributed sweets to mark the occasion and women hugged each other or sang as they waited in line. Others chanted "the martyrs' blood will not go in vain," a reference to the thousands of anti-regime rebels killed by Gadhafi's forces. Others held pictures of loved ones killed in last year's ruinous civil war.
"Look at the lines. Everyone came of his and her own free will. I knew that day would come and Gadhafi would not be there forever," said Riyadh Al-Alagy, a 50-year-old civil servant in Tripoli. "He left us a nation with a distorted mind, a police state with no institutions. We want to start from zero," he said, as a woman came out of the polling center ululating and flashing the purple ink on one of her fingers. The ink is used to prevent multiple voting.
Saturday's vote is a key milestone on a nine-month transition toward democracy for the country after a bitter civil war that ended with the capture and killing of Gadhafi in October. Many Libyans had hoped the oil-rich nation of 6 million would quickly thrive and become a magnet for investment, but the country has suffered a virtual collapse in authority that has left formidable challenges. Armed militias still operate independently, and deepening regional and tribal divisions erupt into violence with alarming frequency.
On the eve of the vote, gunmen shot down a helicopter carrying polling materials near the eastern city of Benghazi, the birthplace of the revolution, killing one election worker, said Saleh Darhoub, a spokesman for the ruling National Transitional Council. The crew survived after a crash landing.
Prime Minister Abdurrahim el-Keib vowed the government would ensure a safe vote Saturday, and condemned the election worker's killing and those who seek to derail the vote.
It was not immediately clear who was behind Friday's shooting, but it was the latest unrest in a messy run-up to the vote that has put a spotlight on some of the major fault lines in the country - the east-west divide and the Islamist versus secularist political struggle.
Many in Libya's oil-rich east feel slighted by the election laws issued by the National Transitional Council, the body that led the rebel cause during the civil war. The laws allocate the east less than a third of the parliamentary seats, with the rest going to the western region that includes Tripoli and the sparsely-settled desert south.
Flush with money, the Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction party has led one of the best organized and most visible election campaigns, and they are hoping to become a political force in post-Gadhafi Libya like the Islamists of Egypt and Tunisia.
Three other parties also are expected to perform well: Former prime minister Mahmoud Jibril's secular Alliance of National Forces, former jihadist and rebel commander Ahmed Belhaj's Al-Watan and the National Front party, one of Libya's oldest political groups, which is credited with organizing several failed assassination attempts against Gadhafi.
The new parliament initially had two missions: to elect a new transitional government to replace the one appointed by the National Transitional Council and to put together a 60-member panel to write the country's constitution. Each of Libya's three regions was to have 20 seats on the panel.
However, in a last-minute move, the NTC decreed that the constitutional panel instead will be elected by direct vote, leaving the parliament only with the task of forming a government, angering many candidates who campaigned largely on the basis of their role in overseeing the drafting of the constitution.