When the uprising erupted in Libya last year, Adam Sbati closed his schoolbooks and left the secure campus of George Mason University in Fairfax County to rush to his parents’ homeland and join ragtag rebels fighting Moammar Gadhafi.
This week, the 23-year-old Libyan-American made the transition from bullets to the ballot box when he was the first to vote at a specially established polling station in an Arlington County hotel in Libya’s first multiparty national elections in more than four decades.
“This time last year, we really didn’t think that we would get this far. So just getting to this point is amazing and historic,” said Mr. Sbati, who was born in Falls Church, where his parents settled after fleeing the brutal Gadhafi regime.
In Libya, voters will go to the polls Saturday to pick a 200-member General National Congress from 3,707 candidates. The congress will appoint a prime minister and select a panel to draft a constitution.
In the United States, Libyan-Americans have been traveling to the Holiday Inn in Arlington since Tuesday to cast ballots at the only U.S. polling place established by a transitional Libyan government. The voting there will continue through Saturday.
Like Mr. Sbati’s parents, many of the Libyan-Americans escaped from Gadhafi’s dictatorship, and most never dreamed they would witness this moment in their lifetimes.
Some clung to hope
“My dream has come true,” said a beaming Abdul Shetewi, dressed in traditional garb. He traveled from Atlanta to be among the first to vote Tuesday.
Teffaha Abeidi, who moved to the United States 32 years ago and lives in Fairfax, broke into a spontaneous ululation as she cast her ballot.
“I’m so excited, my legs are still shaking,” she said.
The large slate of candidates made the choice tough for most voters, but not for Ms. Abeidi.
“My choice was easy. I voted for my husband,” she said with a laugh. Her husband is a candidate in Benghazi.
Libyan-American volunteers manning the polling station were barely able to contain their excitement at being part of a historic event.
“We have been waiting for this moment for decades,” said Ali Alghonas of Cincinnati, a manager at the polling station.
The election is also emotional for former representatives of the regime who defected once the revolution broke out.
Ali Aujali, Libya’s ambassador in Washington, was Gadhafi’s envoy to the United States until he resigned in February 2011, shortly after the uprising began.
“The election is an important milestone in Libya’s transition to democracy,” Mr. Aujali said. “Like most Libyans, my family and I are excited to be voting for the first time in our lives.”
Libyans abroad also are voting this week in Britain, Germany, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Canada.
The process has had its share of teething problems.
Many Libyan-Americans said they were disenfranchised because they could not afford to travel to Northern Virginia to vote.
Nabil Elhuni, a Libyan-American activist in the Philadelphia area, said the election is “flawed.”
“Due to the cost of travel, many people who don’t live near Washington will be disenfranchised,” he said.
A raw nerve
The Libyan High National Election Commission has asked the International Organization for Migration to help conduct voting outside Libya.
Shahrazad Kablan, a Libyan-American who is advising the organization on the elections, said disenfranchisement is a legitimate concern.
“We have a big community in the Midwest and on the West Coast. A lot of them will not be able to come and vote,” she said.
Distance was not an obstacle when Libyan-Americans joined the revolution.
Esam Omeish, a Libyan-American physician in Northern Virginia, treated wounded rebels in the Western Mountains town of Yefren at the height of the uprising.
“A lot of people have shed their blood for this moment, and we, as Libyan-Americans, played no small role in the revolution,” said Dr. Omeish, who was born in Tripoli and moved to the Washington area in 1982.
“It is homecoming for a big event which has engulfed us for over a year,” he said.
Ms. Kablan took leave of absence from her job as a high school teacher in Cincinnati in February 2011 to join the revolution. She helped set up a Libyan TV station, Al-Ahrar, in Doha, Qatar.
Questions about life in the Gadhafi regime touch raw nerves for many Libyan-Americans.
Ms. Kablan’s cousin was assassinated in 1975 and two of her nephews were thrown into Tripoli’s notorious Abu Slim prison, where more than 1,200 inmates were massacred in 1996. Their family was never told why they were locked up. Both are now free.
Asma Ramadan’s father, Aly Abuzaakouk, was imprisoned and tortured for his criticism of the regime. Mr. Abuzaakouk later moved with his family to the United States and is now a candidate in the elections.
‘I must vote’
Washington-based Ms. Ramadan co-founded Libya Outreach, a Libyan-American grass-roots group that sprang up at the time of the revolution. She is thrilled that she got the opportunity to vote this week.
“Too many people died for me now not to vote,” she said.
“So, of course, I must vote,” she said. “I must vote like I must drink water.”
Libyan-Americans say the priorities of their elected representatives must be to secure the country, unite its tribes and build infrastructure that has been ravaged by a combination of war and neglect.
Gadhafi, who ruled Libya for 42 years, was killed in the custody of rebels in his hometown, Sirte, east of Tripoli on Oct. 20.
Since the regime’s fall, the interim government has struggled to control the militias, many of which are now a law unto themselves.
On fact-finding missions in May and June, Amnesty International found “hundreds of armed militias continue to act above the law, many refusing to disarm or join the national army or police force.”
The “ongoing serious human rights violations … are casting a huge shadow over the country’s first national elections,” Amnesty says in a report this week.
Brussels-based International Crisis Group warned that the elections in the eastern part of the country are “imperiled” by armed protesters who are frustrated by the government’s neglect.
On Sunday, armed men ransacked election offices in cities in Libya’s east, including Benghazi, the cradle of the revolution.