Libyan people with the Kingdom of Libya flags gather during celebrations for the liberation of Libya in Quiche, Benghazi October 23, 2011
Libyan people with the Kingdom of Libya flags gather during celebrations for the liberation of Libya in Quiche, Benghazi October 23, 2011 Reuters

In a sign that upcoming national elections in Libya are fraught with conflict, a group of armed protesters has stormed the office of the national election commission in Benghazi.

About 300 people rushed into the building to destroy ballot boxes, burn papers and smash computers on Sunday, six days before the election of a national congress whose members will be charged with drafting a new constitution.

Similar ransacking was reported at electoral facilities in Al Bayda and Tobruk, both eastern cities.

The protesters were calling for a boycott due to what they consider an unfair allotment of seats in the national congress, a body of 200 members. They want more representation for eastern Libya, an oil-rich region that was marginalized under the 40-year dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi.

Existing laws grant 60 seats to eastern Libya. A full 102 seats will go to western Libya, which includes the capital city of Tripoli. The remaining 38 seats are allotted to less-populated areas.

But eastern Libyans, many of whom feel they were the driving force behind Libya's bloody revolution last year, argue that they have a right to greater autonomy after decades of political relegation. Many are calling for a return to federalism.

Sowing The Seeds

Following independence in 1951, Libya was composed of three states united under a federal government. The eastern state of Cyrenaica was joined by Fezzan in the Southwest and Tripolitania in the Northwest.

But the constitution was rehashed following popular protests in 1963, resulting in the dissolution of the federal system. Under the capricious yet iron-fisted rule of Gaddafi, who came to power in a military coup 1969, many eastern Libyans felt that Tripoli had gained an inordinate amount of control over national affairs.

Benghazi, the largest city in former Cyrenaica, became the epicenter of Libyan opposition to Gaddafi's rule. It was there that, in 2011, sporadic protests began that would coalesce into a national movement to oust the regime. As protests spread throughout the country, Gaddafi responded with brutal force. NATO forces intervened with air strikes just as Gaddafi's forces were moving to crush the rebellion in Benghazi, preserving the cradle of the revolution.

By August, the National Transitional Council, or NTC, an interim government generally supported by the rebellion, had issued a new constitutional declaration, laying out a roadmap to democracy. By the end of October, Gaddafi was dead.

Reaping The Rebellion

Now, Libya is struggling to institute a participatory democratic system for the first time in its history. As Sunday's protests show, there is much contention over how to ensure a fair system of representation.

While protesters in Benghazi voice their separatist ambitions, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, the chairman of the NTC, has vowed to defend national unity.

Hazy intentions complicate this apparent opposition. There is little consensus on what exactly eastern Libyan protesters want: Greater legislative representation? A return to the pre-1963 three-state system? More control of the country's oil revenues, considering that two-thirds of Libya's reserves are in the east?

This uncertainty was reflected in Sunday's protest. For all the talk of boycotting June 7 elections, a proposed alternative was hard to pinpoint. Some demonstrators carried posters calling Jalil a traitor of Cyrenaica, which suggests federalist aims. Others took issue with the state-building timeline, demanding no elections without a constitution. Still others chanted for more seats in the national assembly, according to Gulf News.

Holding A Grudge

There is one thing the protest movement seems to agree on: Eastern Libyans will no longer put up with the marginalization they have endured for 40 years. Benghazi had long been a hub of anti-Gaddafi sentiment; as such, it was denied necessary funding for infrastructure and development. Amid widespread suffering under Gaddafi, eastern areas were hit particularly hard.

And while Benghazi may have been the hub of the resulting eastern resistance, the movement was far from centralized. A mosaic of militias across the country -- over 60 groups, by some counts -- put untrained fighters' lives on the line to fight against the regime's organized forces.

Now, those fighters are hesitant to submit to any centralized new power.

Militia leaders, still armed and ever-mistrustful, are being asked to join the new national army; many continue to refuse. Meanwhile, hundreds of Gaddafi loyalists are still being detained -- and in many cases, tortured -- by militia leaders across the country. It is a clear sign that for these battle-hardened revolutionaries the fighting spirit is still strong.

This tension is inherently dangerous to Libya's nascent democracy; many fear that local strongmen will disrupt the electoral process or that the country will dissolve into fractious conflicts before a legitimate government can be convened.

Broken Ballot Boxes

For now, the NTC is determined to go on with June 7 elections; one official told Gulf News that the most essential materials in the Benghazi electoral commission building were kept in a safe location and not damaged during Sunday's protest.

That's good news, considering that these elections have already been postponed from June 19 in order to ensure that voters could register in time and disqualified candidates could submit appeals. Keeping to a timely schedule for electing the national congress, which is only a preliminary step in building a permanent government, would be a solid step forward for Libyan democracy.

The Libyan people themselves are encouragingly engaged in the process; so far, over 80 percent of eligible voters have taken the time to register.

Should the election proceed without any big hitches, the new 200-member body will appoint a prime minister and a cabinet. Then comes the drafting of a constitution, which will be put to a national referendum. Following that, Libyans will once again go to the polls to decide on a president and to elect members of a new parliament.

But first, national congress elections must proceed fairly and peacefully. After Sunday's protests, during which security workers were not able to stop the destruction, voter safety is high on the list of concerns.

For this reason, said NTC spokesman Salih Darhub, the protesters' actions constituted a serious affront to national progress.

All those who contribute to derailing the electoral process are standing against the wish of 80 percent of Libyan voters, he told the Telegraph.

Such acts work against the wishes of those people who languished for years under a dictatorship.