GNA crackdown against Libyan demonstrators belies rhetoric

Besides Tripoli, demonstrations broke out in Zawiya, Surman and other towns, against deteriorating living conditions, high prices, lack of cash and lack of job opportunities.
Tuesday 25/08/2020
Libyans demonstrate in Tripoli against corruption and poor public services, August 24. (AFP)

TRIPOLI – By resorting to violence to suppress peaceful protests over low-level basic services and rampant corruption, the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) can no longer boast of defending democracy and the civilian state. Experts see the GNA as simply exploiting slogans to consolidate its authority while accusing its opponents, especially the Libya National Army (LNA), of seeking to militarise the state and carry out a coup against the principles of the February 17 uprising.

On Sunday evening, hundreds of Libyans demonstrated in Tripoli to express their anger at deteriorating living conditions and widespread corruption in the country that has been experiencing armed conflicts for years now.

“We broke up the demonstration in Martyrs Square when we heard shots being fired in the air to disperse the demonstrators,” said 20-year-old demonstrator Ayman al-Wafi.

Videos and pictures circulated on social media showed men in military uniforms pointing their weapons at the demonstrators in a street in the capital.

Before the start of the demonstration, Mohamed al-Breiki, one of the activists organising the demonstration, posted on the “Hirak 23/8” Facebook page instructions for the participants in the demonstration at Martyrs Square, including specifying the gathering points.

Breiki called on the youth participating in the demonstration to wear white clothes to symbolise peace, and to take preventive measures, especially wearing face masks.

The Tripoli demonstrations came in the wake of similar turmoil that had gripped the western region for days. Indeed, several demonstrations broke out in Sabratha, Zawiya, Surman and other towns in protest against deteriorating living conditions, high prices, lack of cash and lack of job opportunities, in addition to rejecting the finance ministry's latest measure of knocking 25% off the salaries of public sector employees as part of the austerity measures decided to deal with the financial crisis brought about by the suspension of oil exports. Oil exports had been suspended to prevent oil revenues from going to finance the war and pay the wages of the Syrian mercenaries.

It has been reported on social media that the Al-Nawasi militia of the GNA’s interior ministry has been conducting a crackdown that included the arrest of a number of protesters. Some social media pages have even reported that the GNA used the Syrian mercenaries brought by Turkey to suppress the protest.

“The onset of the arrests campaign in Tripoli is a dangerous sign which means that Bashagha has opted for an approach based on escalation and systematic repression,” Ali Ouhaida, a social media activist, wrote on his Twitter page.

Fathi Bashagha, the GNA's interior minister, however, wrote on Twitter that “those who looked like security men were in fact an outlaw group who fired shots.”

On Sunday evening, the interior ministry confirmed in a statement that it had secured and protected the demonstration, noting that it had spotted “infiltrated persons who have been identified and will be arrested, and they are not members of the police forces and do not belong to the Ministry of the Interior.”

The statement was met with mockery on social media sites. Users pointed out that Bashagha, who likes to present himself as the guardian of the February 17 Revolution and protector of the civil state, was using the same methods and arguments previously used by the regime of the late Colonel Muammar Gaddafi at the beginning of the uprising that toppled him in early 2011.

Bashagha, known for his aggressive and violent bent, had for over a year been accusing the LNA of committing crimes against humanity without providing any evidence.

At the end of last May, a young Libyan man named Rajab Rahil Abdel-Fadil Al-Megrahi accused Bashagha of “gouging out his eye” with a “spoon” while being held “in inhuman conditions” inside the prison in 2019.

Since the fall of the Qaddafi regime, the Libyan capital has become a battleground for fighting between militias, resulting in hundreds of civilians being killed.

This is not the first time that Islamists and their allies have violently suppressed protests in Tripoli. People there still remember the events known locally as the Gharghour Massacre perpetrated by the militias, which killed 48 people and wounded over 500 more. The aim of those protests was to pressure the Tripoli authorities to implement decision No. 27 of the General Conference (Parliament). The decision called for removing all armed formations from the Libyan capital.

Bashagha, who never misses an opportunity to accuse the LNA of seeking to overturn democracy and install a military dictatorship, is accused of being one of the most prominent architects of the Libya Dawn coup, carried out by the militias against the results of the 2014 parliamentary elections that removed the Islamists from power. These same Islamists were brought back to power by the Skhirat Agreement with the support of the international community.

On Monday, the United Nations called on the GNA to conduct “an immediate and comprehensive investigation” into the incidents of Sunday's demonstration in Tripoli, which led to people being injured, according to a statement issued by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).

“UNSMIL calls for an immediate and thorough investigation into the excessive use of force by pro-GNA security personnel in Tripoli yesterday which resulted in the injury of a number of protesters,” the statement read, without specifying the number of casualties.

The United Nations mission said that “these demonstrations were motivated by frustrations about sustained poor living conditions, shortages of electricity and water and a lack of service provision throughout the country.”

“It is past time for Libyan leaders to put aside their differences and engage in a fully inclusive political dialogue,” it added.