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Leading article: Libya's faltering first democratic steps


If a stable and responsible government emerges from Libya's first elections, scheduled for today, since the fall of Gaddafi, it will be a minor miracle.

More than 2,500 candidates are contesting the 120 seats reserved for individuals, while more than 100 parties will contend for the remaining 80 seats in a new General National Congress which will have the task of writing a constitution. But the campaign has been slow to ignite, with few normal signs of electioneering. All the paraphernalia of democracy was taboo under Gaddafi, with the result that most of the six million Libyans are hazy about what is involved.

Islamist parties have taken power in Libya's neighbours to the east and west, Egypt and Tunisia, but in Libya itself they are divided between those who see the election as an opportunity and others who threaten to take up arms against it. Last week the offices of the election commission in Benghazi and Tobruk were ransacked by hundreds of protesters.

The Committee for Integrity and Patriotism has been working overtime to prevent supporters of Gaddafi or members of his family from staging a comeback via the ballot box, barring 320 candidates from standing. The election commission has blacklisted another 650. But more than an improbable return by holdouts from the old regime, the danger is of the election magnifying differences between regions of the country which have already caused major tensions.

The National Transitional Council has notionally run Libya since Gaddafi's fall, but in the absence of a strong central police force or army it has been too weak to stand up against the armed and competing groups of former rebels, and ethnic quarrels have erupted that reflect the traditional divisions of this strongly tribal country. More than 150 people died recently in fights between Toubou tribesmen and their Arab neighbours in the south-eastern town of Kufra.

The east, where the rebellion against Gaddafi originated, remains deeply suspicious of the west that was his stronghold, suspicions exacerbated when Tripoli and the west were granted a larger number of seats in the assembly. This election should be a celebration of new-found freedoms, but so far Libya has little cause to cheer.