Almost no-one had ever voted before.
When the Libyan city of Misrata held elections to its local council last Monday it was the first large-scale democratic poll in a Libyan city since the fall of Col Muammar Gaddafi.
The vote is seen as a potential model for national elections due to be held this summer.
“God willing, Libya will become a better country as a result of the people we choose today,” said Nadia, as she emerged from the polling station looking slightly awe-struck.
It didn’t matter that her vote would only count towards seats on a local council. After more than four decades of dictatorship, this was a momentous occasion.
“We’ve been waiting for this day such a long time,” she added.
“I can’t describe how happy I am. If it hadn’t been for the young men who sacrificed themselves we wouldn’t be here today.”
There are 219 candidates standing, all of them independents. They are competing for 28 seats.
At the headquarters of the hastily-assembled electoral committee, there was an air of elated exhaustion. This poll had been organised from scratch in less than a month. The ballot boxes were borrowed from Tunisia —- the finger-ink arrived from London only a day before voting.
“We need to start from scratch but we need to start quickly,” said Mohammed Berween, beaming and hugging friends as he wagged his ink-stained finger in the air.
The 58-year-old politics professor had just voted for the first time in his life. Having recently returned from 30 years in exile in Texas, he is now trying to instruct his fellow Libyans in the art of democracy.
“We have to have the belief that we can do it. And I think if we can (then) we can have a stable, democratic country within a few years.”
Misrata is, so far, the only large city in Libya to give its people a say in how their town is run. Almost everywhere else, local representatives have been appointed without consulting the voters.
But then, Misrata is fast gaining a reputation as a city that does things its own way.
“We (want to) create this model,” Berween said.
“We call it the Misrata model. It will be given to the rest of the country as a gift, (as proof) that we can do it. It is the Obama slogan: ‘Yes we can’.”
Misrata’s identity was forged in battle. The city paid a huge price for its defiance of Col Gaddafi.
Evidence of the punishment inflicted by the former dictator is everywhere — in the buildings, pockmarked with shrapnel, and in the scarred lives of its inhabitants. Everyone has lost friends, many have lost relatives too. Some are missing limbs.
For months last year Misrata held out against Col Gaddafi’s forces, confronted by the enemy on one side, the sea on the other. That experience has left people here with a fierce sense of independence.
On Tripoli Street, the central thoroughfare that was once the front line, young men armed with guns and wearing a variety of combat fatigues search cars as they filter through a checkpoint.
Whatever happens in this election, these are the people who really call the shots in Misrata — groups of former rebel fighters whose authority stems not from any democratic mandate, but from their fearsome reputation.
Sitting in a Jeep that had once belonged to Col Gaddafi’s forces, Ali Abdurahman said he had cast his vote for education. He had left school at 16, he said, and was thinking about going back into learning.
When it came to the national poll, he said he didn’t care whether the winners came from Misrata, Tripoli or Benghazi. He just wanted them to do a good job.
But he had a warning for Libya’s new politicians.
“We’ll give them a bit of time, because we are starting from zero. If they do something good for the country, then fine. But otherwise we’ll remove them just as we removed Gaddafi. It will be another revolution.”
This city already runs its own affairs independent of Tripoli. The interim government is widely seen as ineffectual; the National Transitional Council as unaccountable.
People in Misrata feel they can set an example for the rest of Libya. Follow us if you want to, they say, but we are not waiting around. — BBCOnline.