Citizens protest living conditions, corruption amid political disputes seen as draining resource-rich country’s wealth
Libyans have been demonstrating in the capital Tripoli and elsewhere, demanding better living conditions, an end to corruption and accountability for those behind it.
On Tuesday, protesters arrived at the Tripoli residence of Fayez al-Sarraj, president of the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). Security forces dispersed them and made several arrests.
Salem Abu Khazan, a political analyst and writer for Libya’s Fasana newspaper, told The Media Line that people were fed up with the deteriorating situation in the capital region, where more than half of the population lives.
“These protesters are coming to express their need for basic services, chief among them [an end to] the constant power outages going back years, sometimes between 15 and 20 hours a day, and sometimes, in parts of Tripoli, all day long,” he said.
Abu Khazan says the electricity issue in the city has worsened over time even though most government spending has been earmarked for the sector.
“We are talking about millions of dollars that have been lost, and this is only one example,” he stated.
We are talking about millions of dollars that have been lost, and this is only one example
He points to road closures and a lack of cash and medical services, as well as inconsistencies in dealing with the novel coronavirus crisis.
“The number of infections is huge, and the situation has become extremely bad, especially with the constant clashes between the different militias in Libya that are trying to destroy each other,” he said.
Since Khalifa Haftar, a renegade general and head of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA), lifted a half-year siege of Tripoli, the area has become devoid of the GNA’s main enemy, which, according to Abu Khazan, has “pushed militants to start fighting against each other.”
The current protests started last month, but due to a lack of media coverage, nobody knew about them, he added.
“They started in the South and then moved to the capital,” he explained. “It is a revolution of poor and hungry people using slogans to highlight their need for basic services and freedoms.”
He adds that young people have been demanding that Sarraj divert money to the people “instead of bringing [mercenaries] to kill Libyans and wreak havoc in the country.”
Libya has been torn in two since 2014, when Haftar rejected a power-sharing agreement and withdrew to the oil-rich east, taking with him entire military units, including warplanes, in opposition to the GNA.
The Tripoli-based government regained control of the capital area thanks in great measure to the help of Syrian fighters sent by Turkey and Qatar.
Lifting the siege has weakened the ranks of Haftar’s LNA, which is backed by Russia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Jalel Harchaoui, a Libyan political analyst based in France, told The Media Line that the civil unrest goes beyond areas under Sarraj’s jurisdiction.
“This month, social protests erupted in Sirte, Qubbah and elsewhere in eastern Libya that are nominally under Haftar’s control,” he explained. “Said differently, the popular discontent, although it varies in its modes of expression depending on locality, is a worrisome, pressing problem for both Sarraj and Haftar.”
The popular discontent, although it varies in its modes of expression depending on locality, is a worrisome, pressing problem for both Sarraj and Haftar
Despite differences in the political narratives, he notes, the underlying grievances appear similar.
“Everywhere in Libya, the populace complains of a deterioration in living conditions. Citizens are outraged by increasingly frequent electricity outages, shortages of dinar banknotes, inflation, improper handling COVID-19 and more,” Harchaoui said.
Though he blames certain politicians for manipulating the masses, he notes the “genuine nature” of the population’s frustration, fatigue and anger.
“That part is not fabricated; it is very real,” he said.
According to Harchaoui, media outlets aligned with Haftar are covering only the demonstrations in western Libya, creating the illusion that there are no protests in the East and that the GNA is on the verge of collapse.
“Even within the GNA itself, demonstrations are seen by some ambitious GNA-aligned politicians as conducive to greater opportunities for themselves,” he said.
Ziad Dghem, a founder of Libya’s Federal Movement and a member of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives, to which the LNA has declared loyalty, agrees that while the protests are a popular reaction to terrible conditions, there are “hidden hands” at work.
“The living conditions are undoubtedly unbearable but there are those who are exploiting them to bring down [political figures],” he told The Media Line, adding that some of the instigators were seeking ministerial portfolios under the pretense that they alone knew how to solve the country’s problems.
Tuesday’s protests in Tripoli witnessed a split among the demonstrators. Some gathered at Martyrs Square and others at Algiers Square amid mutual accusations regarding their political views.
Ferhat Polat, a researcher at the TRT World Research Centre in Istanbul and at the University of Exeter’s Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, notes that it has been nine years since strongman Muammar Gaddafi was ousted and that expectations of democracy, stability and growth have yet to come to fruition.
“Libya still suffers from severe political and social difficulties linked to the democratic transition,” he told The Media Line.
Libya still suffers from severe political and social difficulties linked to the democratic transition
Polat adds that according to the UN, the six months that Haftar and his LNA laid siege to Tripoli saw some of the bloodiest battles in years, with more than 200,000 people displaced. Control of the country’s oil fields, he says, played a major role.
“Oil is the heart of the Libyan economy and the country’s principal source of revenue, and Haftar has been seeking to use it as a trump card,” he stated. “Since January of this year, [the GNA] has reportedly lost at least $8 billion as a result of Haftar’s oil blockade, an effort to choke [it off from] vital revenue.”
Polat notes that as a result, the economy throughout the country has experienced a serious decline.
“Significant rates of youth unemployment and economic inequalities; large-scale electricity, water and gas cuts; years of weak governance and corruption; and a failure to combat the spread of COVID-19 have led to these protests,” he said, “not only in Tripoli, but also in eastern Libya.”