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Thuraya Ibrahim at the polling station in the Ben Ashur district of Tripoli. / Maryline Dumas for USA TODAY

TRIPOLI, Libya - Donyia Benzed smiled broadly and held up a finger smudged with blue ink as a friend snapped a picture.

The 18-year-old girl was visibly proud - she had just cast her first vote.

"I can't explain my feeling," she said after voting at her high school in the Zawiat Dehmani district in eastern Tripoli. "I did a lot of research on Internet to choose the right candidates."

Thursday, Libyans headed to the polls to elect a 60-member Constituent Assembly charged with drafting the country's constitution, an important milestone in the rocky transition of the nation after its revolution in 2011. The seats are to be equally distributed among the nation's three regions - east, west and south - and results of the vote could take up to a week.

Once elected, the assembly will have four months to draft a constitution. Its main tasks will include choosing the type of administration - centralized or federal - to govern Libya, deciding to what extent Sharia law will be used and determining the criteria for citizenship.

In spite of the importance of the vote and Benzed's joy, the mood on election day was subdued in light of tension, threats and general distrust of politicians.

About 500,000 cast ballots, the election commission said late Thursday, out of 1.1 million who registered to vote in this election. Overall, about 3.4 million Libyans can vote.

"We did not reach our expectations especially about security but generally speaking, the process went smoothly in the whole country," said Nuri Abbar, head of the High National Electoral Commission (HNEC).

Furthermore, officials said 13 of the 60 seats in the assembly were not filled because of boycotts and the closure of polling stations due to security issues. It's unclear what steps the country will take to fill those spots, and whether additional elections will be held for districts where seats were not filled.

Part of that had to do with various tribes - including the Amazigh, Tuaregs and Tubus - calling for a boycott of the elections. The Amazigh refused to run candidates even though two seats in the assembly were set aside for members.

"There is no open polling station in all Amazigh area - it is a normal day for us," said Amazigh Othman Bensasi, a former National Transitional Committee (NTC) member. "Schools (with polling stations) are operating as usual."

In southern Libya, members of the Tubus and Tuareg tribes prevented HNEC staff from doing their work. No constituencies in the south were able to elect representatives for the assembly because of the lack of polling stations.

The Amazigh, Tuaregs and Tubus refuse to recognize the Constituent Assembly because it would need a two-thirds majority to approve any decisions.

"In this way, the (Arabs) are sure the constitution will never recognize our language and culture, and they will make the citizenship more difficult for minorities," said Hussein Ayer, a Tubu activist.

In Ubari, a Tuareg stronghold, brigades had refused to secure polling stations, so HNEC officials decided to close them.

"It is no time for such an election, Libya is not stable yet," said Ali Jeli, a Tuareg who is a member of the Reconciliation Commission in Ubari.

In the east, six polling stations were attacked in Derna before authorities shut them down. The city is the base for Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist militia that proclaimed in December that any supporters of democracy were its "enemy." The region is also a stronghold for the "Federalists," whose goal is to create their own state, and some of them also boycotted the election.

Since the revolution, Libya has been plagued by security concerns and a weak government unable to control the various tribes and militias that gained in power after the death of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi in late 2011.

"The timing may not be very good. Libya is like a kid. We have never experienced one moment of freedom," said Ahmed Al Agatrash, professor of political science at Tripoli University. "We don't have even the minimum of democratic standards."

Even so, analysts say today's vote is a step forward for the country.

"Remember, Libya does not have a fully functioning government; Libya does not have a constitution or a fully functioning parliament; it does not have a well-developed army," said Fawaz Gerges, head of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. "The elections are the first block in a political and security architecture that will allow Libya to begin the process of transition - that's why the elections are very important. They don't mean the end of the crisis but the beginning to find a way out from this dangerous crisis."

That is why residents such as Thuraya Ibrahim went to the polls in spite of the uncertainty and threats.

"The constitution is very important for our country," said Ibrahim, who went to vote in the Ben Ashur district of Tripoli with her daughter. "We haven't had one since 1969 (when Gadhafi took over). It has to bring peace and development to us."

Her daughter, Dudy, was not as optimistic, saying she didn't trust any candidate.

"I could have voted for any one of them, but I was not 100% sure," she said. "So I decided not to vote."

Contributing: Luigi Serenelli in Berlin



Copyright 2014 USATODAY.com

Read the original story: Libyans head to polls amid uncertainty, threats

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