Mustafa Aojli, 21, prepares pre-Gadhafi flags for sell at the rebel-held town of Benghazi, Libya/AP
By Portia Walker, Special for USA TODAY
TRIPOLI, Libya - Professor Omar Emshery, 60, a dean at Tripoli University, will vote for the first time in a free election Saturday. So will his father, Ahmed, 92, and his wife, Nouriya.
"Before the revolution, if you talked about politics, students would run away," he said.
Libya emerged in October from a brutal civil war in which dictator Moammar Gadhafi was killed after 41 years in power. Saturday, Libyans will vote to fill the seats of a new National Congress after decades in which political parties were banned.
The results may show whether political Islam continues its gains in the aftermath of the Arab Spring uprisings. The Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies hope to prevail as their counterparts have in Tunisia and Egypt.
Violence and political acrimony threaten to mar the vote. Political leaders in Benghazi, Libya's second-largest city and center of the rebellion that ousted Gadhafi, have called for a boycott of the election because they want their city to get more than the 60 seats reserved for it in the 200-member Congress by an interim government.
Protesters have ransacked election offices of opponents. Militias that fought Gadhafi and have yet to disarm continue to clash in the mountainsides while weapons slip across the border and bolster insurgencies in Mali.
"While Libya is safe, its security is still fragile," said Peter Cole, a senior analyst with International Crisis Group. "Substantial mistrust lingers, and coordination is weak."
Thursday, the streets were filled with posters promoting some of the 2,600 candidates running. People in this oil-rich North African nation of 6 million are learning about the parties, the candidates and the democratic process.
"What are elections?" asked Hassan Nahur, a rebel fighter from the Tripoli Brigade. "They're so new to us, I don't think any Libyans know what elections are."
"Honestly, we've still not totally grasped what's going on, but we'll get there," said Fawzi Mohammed, an employee of an electronics company.
Candidates represent 374 different parties, most of which were created in the past few months. The best known are led by people who rose to prominence during the revolution or were opponents of the previous regime.
Among the most prominent of coalitions is the National Forces Alliance led by Mahmoud Jibril, acting prime minister for the outgoing National Transitional Council that has ruled Libya since Gadhafi's fall. The council announced this week that Islamic law, or sharia, should be the main source of legislation.
Another party, al-Watan, is headed by Abdel Hakim Belhaj, former commander of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. The disbanded anti-Gadhafi militant group had ties to al-Qaeda, but Belhaj says he has renounced violence.
The Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Construction party has sent young men and women door to door in white shirts bearing the party's symbol - the horse - to push for its candidates. Also in contention are candidates from the National Front, a longtime political group that touts its record of organizing several failed assassination attempts on Gadhafi.
Some candidacies have ties to the ousted regime, and a new government will probably have to keep the peace among competing forces.
Ibtisam ben Amer, a businesswoman representing the small Libyan National Party, has received threats because her cousin, Huda Ben Amer, was a member of the Gadhafi regime known for yanking the legs of a student hanged at a televised public execution in Benghazi. Ibtisam says she opposed Gadhafi and her cousin's behavior.
"I shouldn't be blamed," she said. "You don't choose your relatives."
The election's legitimacy could be thrown into disarray if large numbers of voters in Benghazi refuse to participate. This week, armed men attacked the electoral commission's headquarters in Benghazi, and Thursday, ballot boxes and papers were destroyed in a fire in the nearby city of Ajdabiyah.
But people say they are optimistic.
"After the elections things will be much better," said Layla Misrata, a young woman shopping in Tripoli with her son. "I am very happy. We are in a new civilization."