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In Benghazi, Libyans vow July 7 vote will go on

From Jomana Karadsheh, CNN
updated 8:30 PM EDT, Mon July 2, 2012
Pro-federalism Libyan protestors burn election materials outside the Electoral Commission in Benghazi on Sunday.
Pro-federalism Libyan protestors burn election materials outside the Electoral Commission in Benghazi on Sunday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Thousands of demonstrators take to the streets of Benghazi
  • Many say they will not allow national election day -- July 7 -- to be disrupted
  • On Sunday, dozens of demonstrators attacked the election commission's headquarters
  • The incident underscores the distrust among easterners for Tripoli

Tripoli, Libya (CNN) -- Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of the eastern city of Benghazi Monday night and vowed to remain in the city's Liberation, or Tahrir, Square until this weekend's national elections, the official Libyan Arab News Agency (LANA) reported.

Many said they will not allow anyone to disrupt the day many Libyans have awaited for more than four decades and are prepared, if need be, to sacrifice their lives to protect the polling centers against saboteurs.

LANA said the demonstrators were condemning an incident on Sunday in which dozens of unarmed pro-federalism demonstrators attacked the electoral commission's headquarters in Benghazi, ransacking the building and taking out computers.

The deputy head of the electoral commission, Emad al-Sayeh, told CNN that employees left the building at the time of the attack, during which no one was hurt. The building was not protected by security forces because they had not been deemed necessary, he said.

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The ballots, which are stored elsewhere, were safe, he said.

When a similar demonstration -- without violence -- occurred at the same time in the eastern city of Tobruk, security forces evacuated the staff and closed the office, he said.

Ian Martin, a special representative of the secretary-general for Libya, told CNN on Monday that the incident in Benghazi showed that "quite a small number of people can make an impact," but said Sunday's damage "has not prejudiced the election going forward in Benghazi itself. Of course, if further violence or threats of violence continue, that would be serious.

"I very much hope that won't be the case, that the National Transitional Council will give reasonable assurances, which I think they have been trying to give about the future role of the east in constitution-making, and that everyone will respect the will of the majority that the election should go forward."

He noted that many people in the eastern part of the country feel marginalized after decades of underrepresentation and neglect during the rule of strongman Moammar Gadhafi, whose power base was centered in the capital city of Tripoli.

Anti-government forces in Benghazi led the uprising that toppled Gadhafi last fall. But since then, much of the focus of attention has reverted to Tripoli.

"So it's not hard to understand why there is a very strong concern in the east that they should have strong representation and that there should be a real decentralization of government services to the east," he said. "That doesn't necessarily mean federalism, of course; that is for discussion in the new constition. But I think that (it) is unfortunate that anyone should now use violence or the threat of violence to pursue those demands, because they are ones that could be addressed in the constitution making process."

On July 7, Libyans are to choose 200 representatives of the National Congress, which would replace the ruling National Transitional Council. The congress will have two primary tasks -- appointing a transitional government and overseeing drafting of a new constitution that would then be subject to a nationwide referendum.

More than 3,500 candidates are running and more than 300 political entities have sprung up; 80 seats are allocated for party lists and 120 for individual candidates.

According to the electoral commission, some 80% of eligible voters have registered to do so.

Libya's electoral law is complex, combining different electoral systems.

The seats in the assembly are divided among the country's three main regions -- Tripolitania in the west, Cyrenica in the east and Fezzan in the south. Based on the demographics, 100 seats in the assembly are to be allocated to the west, 60 for the east and 40 the south.

In March, a small but vocal federalist movement in the east declared its own federal state. The Cyrenica Council has announced it will boycott the elections.

Over the past week, calls in the east have increased for more representation in the congress and demands for more seats.

Video last week showed protesters in Benghazi tearing down and ripping election posters.

The chairman of the NTC, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, told reporters last week that delegations had been dispatched to the east to negotiate with those making the demands.

Abdul Jalil said he was open to compromise, but that it was too close to Election Day to increase the east's representation in the congress.

According to NTC members, one possible compromise could be on the mechanism used to select the 60 members of panel that would draft the constitution.

The Committee of 60, as it's called, would include 20 members from each of the three regions. Officials have suggested that the members might be selected in regional elections.

Analysts say the lack of trust between the east and the west stems from the decades of Gadhafi rule and what was seen as favoritism for his seat of power in the west.

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