TRIPOLI - Joyful Libyans queued early Saturday, July 7, to choose a national assembly in the first election since the ouster of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, amid risks of being hijacked by violence.
"I can't describe the feeling. We paid the price, I have two martyrs in my family," Zainab Masri, a 50-year-old teacher, told Reuters of her first experience of voting.
I am certain the future will be good, Libya will be successful.
In Tripoli, polling stations opened on schedule with queues of voters eager to elect the General National Congress, which will be at the helm of the country for a transition period.
Libyans will choose a 200-member assembly which will elect a prime minister and cabinet before laying the ground for full parliamentary elections next year under a new constitution.
Voters in the capital turned up draped in black, red and green flags; the colors of the revolution that toppled Gaddafi last year, while mosques blasted chants of "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest).
"I am a Libyan citizen in free Libya," said Mahmud Mohammed Al-Bizamti.
"I came today to be able to vote in a democratic way. Today is like a wedding for us."
Yet early voting there was calm and many ignored calls to boycott the election in protest that the east has been allotted only 60 seats in the assembly compared to 102 for the west.
"I brought my children to see this," mother-of-five Hoda Wada said as she waved an ink-stained finger as proof she had voted.
"It is such a day of festivities."
Libya has not seen elections since the era of late monarch King Idris, whom Gaddafi deposed in a bloodless coup in 1969.
Parties were banned as an act of treason during Gaddafi's iron-fisted rule. Now there are 142 parties fielding candidates.
A total of 80 seats are reserved for party candidates while 120 seats are open to individual candidates. Altogether, 3,707 candidates are running in 72 districts across the country.
The incoming congress will have legislative powers and appoint an interim government. But it no longer has the right to appoint a constituent authority, under a last-minute amendment issued by the outgoing National Transitional Council (NTC).
Fears of violence and sabotage marred the historic scene of election, which marked a milestone in the transition to democracy after 42-years of dictatorship.
"We believe that to have this election in Libya less than one year after the fall of Tripoli is an important achievement," Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, who heads a team of 21 European Union observers, told Agence France Presse (AFP) on Saturday.
The EU team had been reinforced in Benghazi following disruptions, with one female observer added to the mix to help monitor the women sections of polling stations.
"We only hope that the situation remains peaceful across the country," he added.
The majority of Libyans want to vote. Eighty percent want to vote.
The make-up of the congress has been a matter of heated debate, with political factions such as the federalist movement calling for more seats.
The outgoing NTC says seats were distributed according to demographic considerations, with 100 going to the west, 60 to the east and 40 to the south.
But factions in the east want an equal split of seats and have threatened to sabotage the vote if this demand is not met.
The authorities dismiss such groups as a disruptive minority, pointing out that more than 2.7 million people, or about 80 percent of the eligible electorate, have registered to take part in the poll.
Ian Martin, head of the UN mission to Libya, urged "all voters to exercise their hard-earned democratic right to elect their National Congress representatives" while condemning the deadly attack.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group has warned the electoral process in Libya is "imperiled by armed protesters who... are threatening to disrupt the vote in the eastern part of the country."
While analysts say it is hard to predict the political make-up of the new assembly, parties and candidates professing an attachment to Islamic values dominate and very few are running on an exclusively secular ticket.
Mahmoud Jibril's National Forces coalition is popular - especially among more secular and business-minded Libyans impressed by his performance as rebel prime minister and by his economic policies.
It is expected to face stiff competition from the Justice and Construction offshoot of Libya's Muslim Brotherhood, as is al-Watan (Homeland), the party of former CIA detainee and Islamist insurgent Abdel Hakim Belhadj.
Polls close at 8 pm (1800 GMT) but meaningful partial results are not due until Sunday.