By Célian Macé

In Tripoli, hundreds of demonstrators have been marching for several days against corruption and the country’s economic bankruptcy. Their marches were violently dispersed. Other cities are experiencing gatherings.

Despite the war, the financial crisis, despite the Covid-19 epidemic, despite the relentless heat of this month of August, despite especially the weariness of eight years of a long collapse of the country since the fall of Gaddafi, they are gone out.

On Sunday, young Libyans took to the streets of the capital to cry out their anger. They were a few hundred, certainly more than a thousand.

On social networks, dreamers have dared to speak of a new Hirak (“movement”) of the Arab world. We are very far from that. The crowd was sparse, the slogans disparate.

Nevertheless, the demonstrators came from all quarters of Tripoli to converge on the Place des Martyrs. They mostly came out the next day, and again the day after. Other marches took place in the towns of Misrata and Zawiya (west), in Sebha (south) or Barqa (east).

With in common the criticism of the corruption of the authorities, the fatigue of the water and electricity cuts, increasingly long and trying, the humiliation of the queues of several kilometers to buy gasoline in a country known to be bathed in oil.

Looting in order

In Tripoli, Sunday’s parade was violently dispersed by an armed group. The UN has called for an investigation. According to Amnesty International, “at least six demonstrators were kidnapped and others were injured after armed men fired live ammunition”. 

The human rights NGO collected several direct testimonies on the course of events: “At around 7:30 pm, unidentified men in fatigues opened fire on the crowd without warning, using AK-type automatic rifles and pick-ups. up with heavy weapons. ” Amnesty suspects the powerful Nawasi brigade of being behind the shootings.

This armed group, which operates in the waterfront area, is one of the four militias that make up the “Tripoli cartel” – an alliance of brigades born during or just after the 2011 revolution. They are theoretically placed under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior of the government of national unity, recognized by the United Nations. 

They actually enjoy a great deal of autonomy, exercising continuous blackmail on the government which depends on them for its security. 

In exchange for this “protection”, the militias are accused of engaging in lawful looting of public funds. Many demonstrators denounce their responsibility for the general paralysis of public services and the Libyan administration.

Curfew dresser

On Thursday, the Minister of the Interior, Fathi Bashagha, wished to “warn these armed groups if they attempt to harm the lives of the demonstrators, to intimidate them or to deprive them of their freedom” , saying he is ready “To use force to protect civilians from the brutality of a gang of thugs” – without specifying what force he might use.

He did not explicitly name those responsible, yet “known as well as the official bodies on which they depend”, he said. Prime Minister Faïez el-Serraj himself responded to protesters on Monday in a solemn televised address, where he recalled the “legitimate right”of all Libyans to express themselves. 

In a wave of contrition, the head of government recognized his “share of responsibility” in the current crisis and promised a cabinet reshuffle very soon.

Faïez el-Serraj, however, announced on Wednesday a four-day curfew, each evening from 6 p.m. and for all days on Friday and Saturday. Officially, the measure is taken under the health emergency, the Covid-19 epidemic experiencing a marked acceleration in Libya (the number of cases has doubled in the last two weeks). 

But as for neighboring Algeria, the demonstrators see it above all as a convenient maneuver to stifle the protest. On Wednesday evening, the most obstinate of the marchers were quickly dispersed.

Libyans chant slogans during a demonstration due to poor public services at the Martyrs’ Square at the center of the GNA-held Libyan capital Tripoli on August 24, 2020.

Libya, which sits atop Africa’s largest proven crude oil reserves, has endured almost a decade of violent chaos since the 2011 NATO backed uprising that toppled and killed veteran dictator Moamer Kadhafi. 

The war-weary country is plagued by water shortages and power blackouts that snuff out air-conditioners in the searing summer heat.

Snippets of videos

In Sirte, a city in the center of the country close to the front line, under the control of the Libyan National Army (ANL) of rebel Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the repression seems to have been even more dramatic. 

The NGO Libya Crimes Watch denounced “the excessive use of force and live ammunition against civilians, the assault on houses, carried out by ANL units”. 

She identified “one dead, seven injured and dozens of arrests” Tuesday. Mobile networks and the internet were cut, making it impossible to verify information. Snippets of videos showing a massive crowd leaked onto social media.

The gatherings in Sirte, however, appear to be of a different nature from those in Tripoli. They would originate from a quarrel between the powerful Ghaddafa tribes (that of Muammar Gaddafi and his son Saif al-Islam) and Ferjan (to which Khalifa Haftar belongs), both well established in the area.

Their alliance of circumstance, facing the government of national unity in Tripoli, would be on the verge of being torn apart, according to observers. Weakening the camp of Marshal Haftar, already shaken by his failure of the siege of Tripoli, in June.

Whatever the reasons, for the first time in years, from one end of Libya to the other, peaceful young people are trying to reclaim public space, long abandoned to armed men. – soldiers, militiamen, criminals or terrorists. A political gesture, finally, to oppose the bullets. Admittedly small, but promising.

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