TRIPOLILibyans streamed to the polls amid a celebratory atmosphere for their first chance to steer their country's political future since Moammar Gadhafi seized power in 1969and since the popular uprising that ousted the dictator nearly nine months ago.
"This is the day that we fix the past," said Maryem El-Barouni, a 23-year-old medical student, referring to the legacy of economic decay and dictatorship, who was among the first voters in the capital Saturday morning. "We've come through a very bad period. This is our chance to feel freedom."
The vote to select a new national congress is expected to curb the expanding influence of Islamic parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, that have come to dominate the political landscape in post-Arab Spring countries like Tunisia and Egypt. As in its two neighbors, the role of religion in Libya has played a prominent spot in political campaigning across the countryespecially among the handful of national party blocs fielding candidates across the country.
But Libya's new, complex election rules favor independent candidates focused on local concerns, rather than parties and their fixed ideologies. Official results from the polls aren't expected for several days, but election observers say a likely outcome is a governing body dominated by a patchwork of local candidates representing far-flung constituencies, rather than party blocs.
Voters are selecting members of a new General National Congress, which will replace the unelected National Transitional Council, the caretaker authority run by dissidents and rebel chiefs who led the battle to oust the longtime dictator last year.
The body will oversee the drafting of a new constitution, a process that is likely to last around six months. It is meant to give the oil-rich nation of six million people a road map to dismantling the centralized power structures built by Gadhafi, which favored certain tribes and regions and neglected others.
The assembly will have total governing authority over the country's oil wealth, infrastructure, foreign policy and security until the constitution is approved in a national referendum, which will decide the structure of a new government.
But the power comes with a poisoned barb: It will also inherit the lawlessness, dysfunctional state institutions and outdated state-run enterprises that were the hallmark of Gadhafi's economy.
Although Libya has weathered months of lawlessness and security challenges since Gadhafi's downfall, the vote moved forward in a relatively smooth fashion in nearly all of the roughly 1,500 polling stations across the vast, oil-rich nation, according to election officials.
Two polling stations in the small eastern towns of Ajdabiya and Brega shut down briefly Saturday morning when armed men stormed the building and stole ballot materials. The violence came after a week of tensions across eastern Libya where a small group demanding greater representation for their region has called for a boycott of the polls.
However, the tensions didn't appear to affect turnout in the main eastern city of Benghazi, where last year's popular uprising started, according to election observers there.
Across the capital Tripoli, residents were exuberant about the chance to participate in the next step of their political future.
Neighbors brought breakfast pastries and sweets to the polling stations hand out to others in line with them. Cars festooned with the new Libyan flag paraded through downtown streets.
Jamal Al-Jidlik, a 31-year-old businessman who spent his whole life under Gadhafi's rule, had tears in his eyes as he stepped out of his polling station in the neighborhood of Abu Salim. "I never thought I'd see this day. It's the first step towards real justice and democracy," he said.
The novelty of electionsGadhafi outlawed political parties as bourgeois and corruptand the crowded field mean that there aren't any clear front-runners. Many voters have focused on candidates' credibility, given the deep vacuum of leadership fostered by decades of the former dictator's rule.
About 80% of eligible voters have registered to cast ballots. Close to 4,000 candidates are vying for the 200 seats of the new Congress, of which 120 are reserved for independent candidates and 80 will be filled by political parties. Some 130 parties have formed, though few have national reach.
Ms. Barouni, the medical student, was one of approximately 50 women waiting to vote in the middle-class district of Hay Andoulous early Saturday morning.
Two generations of her family were voting for the first time in their lives, she said. They were enthusiastic about participating in the vote, but had struggled over finding enough information to make informed choices among the dozens of politicians on the ballot.
Ms. Barouni says her elderly mother relied extensively on her children to educate her about the patchwork of candidates and parties that have emerged over the past several weeks during the rushed campaign season. They used Facebook pages of candidates as well as television debates featuring would-be politicians to make up their minds, she said.
She finally settled on a regional party that has a heavy contingent of women candidates and that has promised to focus on the problems facing young people, like improving education and job training. "Not many Libyan [politicians] know anything about our hopes and our needs," Ms. Barouni said.
Many independent candidates are well-known businessmen, lesser-known artists or members of prominent families, eager to try their hand at representative politics. Since the Gadhafi-era media infrastructure has yet to be replaced by any national news outlets, few candidates are known outside their local areas or even beyond their extended families or employees.
Some newly formed national political parties, however, are well-financed and have registered members to run in districts across the country.
Among them is an umbrella coalition of liberal parties led by Mahmoud Jibril, the head of the rebel government. The Libyan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood has also formed a party, as has the country's oldest dissident group known for its decades of anti-Gadhafi activity.
These parties spent the short campaign period trying to bolster name recognition and credibility through local campaign events like visits to neighborhood youth soccer clubs and charities.
Like citizens of other Arab Spring nations, Libyans debated the role religion will have in their political future.
The Justice and Development Party, the Brotherhood-affiliated group, is perceived as ultraconservative; however, its leaders say the group doesn't want to create morality police, as can be found in Saudi Arabia, or restrict people's personal lives.
The National Front, a rival party whose members are among the nation's most respected dissidents, has tried to leverage a wide current of suspicion against the Muslim Brotherhood and position itself as the party of middle-class Libyans who are uncomfortable with wearing religion on their sleeves.
"Religion should be a private concern," said Abeer Al-Meena, a leading National Front candidate in Benghazi whose chestnut locks flow free of a head scarf and who holds a Ph.D. in political science from a French university. "We are all Muslims and don't need anyone telling us how to be more Muslim."