By Ali Shuaib

MISALATA, Libya, July 9 (Reuters) - Ali Shuaib is a Libyan news reporter who has worked for Reuters in Tripoli since 2007.


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I was 15 years old the last time Libya held a parliamentary election - too young to vote, but old enough to remember that Arab nationalism was sweeping the region, inspiring calls for social reform and independence from the West.

As I excitedly followed the fiery election campaigns that dominated the airwaves and filled the myriad independent newspapers, little did I know that my first chance to vote would not come for another 47 years - until July 7, 2012.

Back in 1964, five years before Muammar Gaddafi came to power and banned elections, candidates demanded Libya forge an independent oil policy. Many felt the West had exploited our resources in the 1950s and it was a popular idea.

Colourful language was used to attract voters angered by the presence of British and U.S. military bases on Libyan soil, and eye-catching posters filled public squares and carried slogans such as "Our petroleum should be our petroleum" and "Foreign military bases undermine our sovereignty".

I can remember how independent newspapers slammed the government and condemned the corruption that had spread through Libya as the oil revenues began to pour in - the kind of criticism that only a few years later would land you in one of Gaddafi's jails.

But Libya was a monarchy back then ...

Driven by fear of the rising discontent, the government set about sidelining prominent academics and journalists who were running in the election. As nationalism spread from neighbouring Egypt, where military officers had overthrown the monarchy in 1952, official fear increased.

There were - it is true - some surprising results in the election, and that fuelled suspicions of fraud.

But despite the authorities' best efforts, a bloc of outspoken opposition politicians got into parliament and used their new positions to pile pressure on the government.

Within months, the then-ruler, King Idris, had dissolved the elected parliament, an event which upset me a lot at the time because the people being sidelined were highly educated and serious about reforming our country.

Another poll, held in 1965, was marred by widespread accusations of fraud, and four years later - in 1969 - Gaddafi seized power.

Democracy for him was a bourgeois indulgence and he scrapped regular polls before I was old enough to vote.

I had to wait until 1972 for my next brush with elections. The occasion: a vote for 20 representatives to join a Council of the Federation of Arab Republics, a doomed attempt by Gaddafi to unite Libya, Egypt and Syria.

I was an assistant to one of the candidates, but still missed my chance to vote as I was too busy working on election day.

The experiment in Arab nationalism was not to last - within five years, the federation had fallen apart and the last vestiges of political choice would soon be snuffed out too.


WRITING ON THE WALL

Days after the 1972 election, which had left thousands of pictures of candidates crowding the streets and squares of Tripoli, cleaners were dispatched to scrub their images off the walls.

From then on, the only images hanging in public spaces were those of Gaddafi. It was his face that was carried in every pocket too, printed on the new one dinar note. Some years later, a new 50 dinar note was issued, again bearing his likeness.

Just as the people of Communist North Korea were everywhere faced with pictures of Kim Il Sung or his sons, it seemed to me that we too were surrounded by images of only one man.

Those giant pictures were to dominate public squares and billboards until the Arab Spring spread through North Africa.

After 42 years ruled by little more than Gaddafi's whims, which frequently saw Libyan policy change erratically, revolution finally came to Libya and with it a chance for Libyans to choose their own political representatives again.

So it was that, shortly before the close of registration in May, I took myself to an election office in my home town of Misalata to pick up a pass that would allow me to vote, for the first time in my life, at the age of 62.

I looked at my new election card and memorised the number - 2404451 - that would allow me to join 2.8 million other Libyans in electing a national assembly empowered to build a new Libya from the rubble of the institutions that Gaddafi dismantled.

As I headed to the ballot box on Saturday for the first time, what struck me most was that Gaddafi's pictures were gone. In their place, the walls and squares were again covered with a multitude of faces, competing for people's attention, and vehicles toured the streets carrying their images too.

It was a refreshing reminder that my country is no longer run by one man, with no one else's face allowed to grace the walls, let alone share in the exercise of power.

And here was I, for the first time and after witnessing three ill-fated elections as an observer, finally voting for a candidate of my choice. For a candidate I believe will serve Libya, not rule it or loot its wealth.

Yet my maiden vote was for more than just a candidate.

It was for a new political system and for a new Libya that I hope can give me back my voice after more than four decades during which I could not make myself heard. (Writing by Lin Noueihed; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

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