After four decades of political exclusion, Libyans on Saturday night celebrated a historic election that many saw as the African nation's first steps to building a free and democratic nation.
The landmark parliamentary vote was marred in places by disruptions that prompted polling centers to close, but the overall turnout was higher than expected.
Preliminary reports indicate more than 1.6 million of the nation's 2.8 million registered voters -- or about 60% -- went to the polls, High National Election Commission chairman Nuri Khalifa Al-Abbar said late Saturday, according to the Libyan state news agency.
Votes were cast as planned at 98% of all polling stations, Al-Abbar said earlier in the day.
And by Saturday night, after the final votes were cast, there was revelry as drivers honked their horns around the capital of Tripoli as they and other Libyans rejoiced at the country's transformation over the past year.
The city's main square -- once called Green Square for Gadhafi's political philosophy outlined in his Green Book but now known as Martyr's Square for all those who fell in last year's revolution -- became a focal point for the celebrations, with it and the surrounding streets packed with cars.
"We never ... voted before, we never did elections before, so it's totally new to us," said blogger and medical student Ruwida Ashour from the eastern city of Benghazi. "It won't be easy (but) it's our country."
The last time Libya held an election was almost half a century ago and for many people, the act of casting a ballot was novel after 42 years of Moammar Gadhafi's autocratic rule.
Besides significant participation among average citizens (about 80% of the nation's 3.5 million eligible voters registered ahead of the vote), the election indicated there was strong interest among people interested in being part of the nation's fledgling government as well. More than 3,500 candidates stood in the election for a 200-seat national assembly, with the winners expected to be announced by the end of next week.
Men and women, young and old waited patiently Saturday in long lines in cities and towns across Libya -- some that were war zones only a year ago. After voting, jubilant Libyans proudly waved their right index finger smudged in purple indelible ink as proof of their participation.
Sizzling summer temperatures did not keep people away in Tripoli, where loudspeakers blared: "Allahu akbar" (God is great).
Hanaa bin Dallah, 32, carried her 2-month-old son Rahman with her to the polls. She was heartened by the participation of so many people, despite the weather.
"I hope my word will make a difference -- not like the past," she said.
Hawwaa BouSaida, 65, said she had never been to school in her life but was proud to be voting.
"After 42 years of not even not knowing what elections are, and were blinded, we are voting today for the first time," she said.
Akram Mohamed BinRamadan returned from exile in Britain to fight last year with the rebels. Still dressed in military fatigues, he said it was time now to stop the fighting and begin the difficult task of rebuilding the nation.
"I think it's time to take all these off," he said. "This is going to be a free country."
U.S. President Barack Obama issued a statement congratulating Libyans "for another milestone on their extraordinary transition to democracy."
"After more than 40 years in which Libya was in the grip of a dictator, today's historic election underscores that the future of Libya is in the hands of the Libyan people," Obama said. "...As they begin this new chapter, the Libyan people can count on the continued friendship and support of the United States."
More than 13,000 soldiers were on the streets Saturday. But not all went smoothly.
Two polling centers were set ablaze in the eastern city of Benghazi, said Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, head of the EU election assessment mission. And in two other cities, polls did not open until 2 p.m. (six hours before they were set to close).
In the eastern city of Ajdabiya, five polling centers opened but four others on the outskirts did not.
On Friday, anti-aircraft fire hit a Libyan air force helicopter transporting ballot boxes from the eastern city of Benghazi to nearby areas, the Interior Ministry said. One person was killed. It was unclear who was behind the attack.
And protesters earlier this week attacked a warehouse and torched ballots and other election materials.
This was one of several anti-election incidents staged by Libyans in the east who see an unequal distribution of seats in the national assembly. The 200 seats are allocated by population, reserving 100 for the western Tripolitania, 60 for Cyrenaica in the east, and 40 for the south.