Libyan government faces growing frustration

January 24, 2012

As Libya’s interim government struggles to bring security, stability and democracy to the country, a burgeoning protest movement is rocking the fragile nation, venting grudges and challenging the legitimacy of the ruling authorities.

The movement is at its strongest in the eastern city of Benghazi, the cradle of the uprising that saw NATO-backed forces help end Moammar Gaddafi’s
42-year rule.

Rebel fighters began battling government forces here in February last year. They controlled most of the city within a few days, and a transitional governing council began operating before the end of that month as the city became the base for the revolution.

But almost a year later, support for the council, which has shifted its operations to Tripoli, is rapidly evaporating. People complain of shaky security, delays in reopening schools and courts, and flaws in the interim constitution and proposed electoral legislation, as well as the continued presence of Gaddafi-era officials on the council.

For more than a month, hundreds of angry demonstrators have gathered nightly in Tree Square in the city center to chant, dance, sing and discuss their grievances.

“What we are asking for is not privileges,” said Saleh el-Haddar, a businessman at a recent protest. “We want the courts to work, we want the followers of Gaddafi to go . . . and our main concern is transparency.”

The simmering discontent bubbled into violence on Saturday, when thousands rallied outside a government building where members of the transitional council were meeting local politicians. Protesters threw grenades and homemade bombs, while the council’s chairman, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, remained inside, demonstrators said.

Speaking at a news conference after the clash, Abdel Jalil called for patience. “We are going through a political movement that can take the country to a bottomless pit,” he said, according to the Reuters news agency. He also suspended six members of the council from Benghazi.

His remarks were swiftly followed by the resignation Sunday of Abdul Hafidh Ghoga, the deputy head of the transitional council. He was head of the lawyers union under Gaddafi and was regarded by some as discredited by his association with the late leader.

‘Honeymoon’ is over

“In Benghazi, we were very lucky — we did not suffer as they did in the west of Libya,” said Zahi el-Meghrabi, a professor of politics in Benghazi, referring to months of fighting between rebels and Gaddafi loyalists that left thousands dead. “The transitional council had support, but the honeymoon did not last.”

Now, people are frustrated by the confusing ways the government makes decisions and issues legislation, Meghrabi said. Meghrabi said that many were unhappy with an interim constitution announced by the transitional council in August, complaining that there had not been sufficient consultation with civil society groups and lawyers.

A draft of the legislation that will guide elections set for the summer, unveiled early this month, was also unpopular, with women’s rights activists calling for more than its proposed 10 percent quota for women in a new government and others criticizing clauses that would bar people with dual citizenship from running for office.

Delays in unfreezing Libya’s assets abroad also were creating shortages of cash for the government, causing payments to the poor to be suspended and impeding a program for those wounded in the eight months of fighting to be treated overseas, Meghrabi said.

Last week, a group of rebel fighters carrying banners complaining about the treatment of the wounded blocked the main highway in Benghazi with trucks. They rattled off rounds of gunfire into the air and detonated sound bombs.

Calls for ‘correction’

The example of Benghazi’s protests have been followed, although with fewer participants and less violence, in Tripoli and the city of Misurata, where protesters have pitched tents and staged marches, largely peaceful but sometimes violent, calling for the “correction of the revolution.” As in Benghazi, they draw support from a broad base: nascent civil society organizations, political activists and former rebel fighters.

Among the shattered buildings and posters hailing fallen rebels in Misurata, which saw some of the war’s fiercest fighting, a few tents are pitched in an intersection known as Freedom Square.

Protests and sit-ins have called mainly for elections for the local council, which was appointed by consensus after Gaddafi’s forces were largely defeated in May. About 200 people participated in marches and camped out, with success: An electoral committee has been set up and a local vote is set to be held in a month.

Thus far in Misurata and in a small encampment in Tripoli’s central Algeria square, protesters’ demands have not been as strident as their counterparts’ in Benghazi. Most people still support the interim government, but they want to ensure it stays on the right track, said Mohammed Benrasali, formerly of the Misurata city council.

“We made Gaddafi what he was by not standing up to him,” he said. “We need to make Abdel Jalil realize that he cannot take the country by any road but democracy.”

In Benghazi, the situation remained explosive after the weekend’s events, said Haddar, the protester in Tree Square. “I am hoping that the council will listen to the people and be transparent,” he said, accusing leaders of “not taking the street seriously.”

“We are hoping that it will settle down,” he added. “But Benghazi is always the place where everything starts.”

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