Protests sweep Libya as political stalemate drags on

Kamel Abdallah , Friday 8 Jul 2022

Al-Ahram Weekly keeps up with the worsening situation in Libya.

Protests across Libya
Libyans gather at the Martyrs Square of Libya s capital Tripoli to protest against the political solution and dire living conditions (photo: AFP)

 

Angry demonstrations swept Libya last weekend protesting declining living standards, electricity cut-offs and other bread and butter problems. The protesters blame such deterioration on the ongoing tug-of-war between the main political players who continue to obstruct the general elections needed to end repeated rounds of interim phases and usher in much needed stability and a functioning government.

The demonstrations began in the capital on Friday afternoon in response to a call by a Libyan youth movement named Baltris. On social media, the group proclaimed five key demands: Accelerated arrangements for national presidential and parliamentary elections, the dissolution of all political bodies and the declaration of a state of emergency, a solution to the electricity crisis and public clarification of its causes, the withdrawal of proposals to lift fuel subsidies and change the size and price of bread loaves, and the departure of all foreign forces and mercenaries from eastern, western and southern Libya.

Those demands resonated deeply among people across the country. In addition to Tripoli, marches were organised in the streets of Misratah, Zawiya and Qara Bolli in western Libya; as well as Sabha, Tobruk, Beida and Biar in the south and east. Security forces prevented demonstrations in Benghazi and Abjadiya after they turned violent, leading to the destruction of local government buildings and the burning of the House of Representatives building in Tobruk.

After the national elections scheduled for 24 December 2021 were suspended, the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) voted to withdraw confidence from the Government of National Unity headed by Abdel-Hamid Dbeiba and replace it with a new government headed by Fathi Bashagha. Dbeiba, however, refused to step down and his government continues to receive the recognition and support of the UN and Western powers. As a result, the country has reverted to the institutional bifurcation that had prevailed before the Dbeiba government took office in March 2021. The protests last weekend erupted the day after the UN-sponsored meeting between HoR Speaker Aguila Saleh and the Head of the High Council of State (HCS) Khaled Al-Mishri in Geneva. The meeting ended without the hoped for agreement over the constitutional basis for holding elections, which had previously been the focus of three rounds of meetings in Cairo in May and June between delegations from the HoR and HCS.

While officials locally and internationally sympathised with the protesters, they condemned the destruction of public property. Many were appalled by the burning of the HoR building in Tobruk, an incident that Saleh blamed on “supporters of the old regime.” In an interview with Al-Arabiya news on Sunday, the HoR speaker held that the protesters’ demands were addressed to the government rather than to the legislative authority and asked the Bashagha government to respond to them. The government, for its part, has not been able to start work yet.  Speaking at a social forum in Sirte, Bashagha accused “foreign parties” he did not identify of obstructing the government.

As of Monday, Bashagha had not commented on the demonstrations. However his rival, Prime Minister Dbeiba of the Government of National Unity (GNU), said he supported the protesters’ demands. He agreed that all political bodies should be dismissed, including his own. However, he stressed, that should only be through national elections. The Libyan people know very well who has been holding up that process, he said in a statement posted on the GNU website. “They are same ones who obstructed the budgetary allocations and closed down the oil fields, which aggravated the standards of living crisis.” On Monday, he vowed that his would be “the last of the interim governments in Libya” and that it would leave after elections monitored by the Libyan people.

The Baltris movement held that either the Presidency Council or the Supreme Judicial Council should be authorised to declare a state of emergency and dissolve both the HoR and HSC. These were the main bodies that stood in the way of elections because of their inability to reach a consensus on the constitutional framework for elections.

The Presidency Council issued a statement vowing not to let Libyans down and to support their demand for presidential and legislative elections in accordance with a constitutional basis “agreed on by all.” The UN and the US did not see eye to eye with the protesters’ demands. In a statement released after meeting with the chairman of the Presidency Council on Saturday, US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland expressed his country’s “deep concern about the political, economic and financial stalemate that resulted in scenes of turmoil such as those we saw yesterday across the country.” He seemed to hold that it would be counterproductive to dissolve existing political entities before they fulfilled their constitutional and legislative obligations. “It is clear no single political entity enjoys legitimate control across the entire country and any effort to impose a unilateral solution will result in violence,” he said, urging “Libya’s political leaders across the spectrum and their foreign backers to seize the moment to restore the confidence of their citizens in the country’s future.”

The UN Special Adviser on Libya Stephanie Williams shared this view. “The people’s right to peacefully protest should be respected and protected but riots and acts of vandalism such as the storming of the House of Representatives headquarters late yesterday in Tobruk are totally unacceptable,” she wrote on her Twitter account. “It is absolutely vital that calm is maintained, responsible Libyan leadership demonstrated, and restraint exercised by all.” In a statement to the BBC, she added, “I hope that Libya’s political actors are now listening. These protests are a clarion call for the political class to put their differences aside and hold the elections that the Libyan people want.”

Italy and Germany expressed similar views through their ambassadors who also condemned the acts of violence, but voiced their understanding of the protesters’ anger and frustration. They urged Libyan leaders to work together to meet the Libyan people’s aspirations to general elections. Alluding to the Bashagha government formed by the HoR, European officials added that they did not recognised “parallel institutions.”

Such concordant views are a sign that the international community remains determined to up the pressure on existing institutions - notably the HoR and HCS - to come to terms on the measures need to hold elections. But the prospects for such pressures to succeed are still limited by the considerable leeway these institutions have to set the course to elections, which they have used primarily to throw spanners in the works.

On 24 September 2020, Libya experienced a similar, if smaller, movement with the same demands. Beginning the previous night in Zlitan and spreading to the capital, Tripoli, young demonstrators set up roadblocks in protest of power outages and the general deterioration of living conditions. The movement was short-lived, but it helped the UN and Western powers push for the resumption of the UN sponsored political process and launch the Political Dialogue Forum which, in turn, produced the roadmap for the current interim phase which is supposed to culminate in general elections. Although supporters of the 24 September movement failed to achieve their ends, it appears they are making another attempt. This time they have adopted a different tack, one that diverges from course favoured by the UN and Western powers which are averse to political arrangements that they do not have a say in shaping.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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