Libyans protest against corruption and poor living conditions in Martyr’s Square on August 23, 2020 in Tripoli. (Photo by Nada Harib/Getty Images)

Libyan Protests in Tripoli and Beyond Signal People’s Discontent at Political Elite

09/28/2020 . By Alessandra Bajec

In what came as an unexpected announcement this September, Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj stated his intention to step down by the end of October following speculation in the press about his possible resignation the week prior to the announcement.

This past August, hundreds of Libyans protested over several days in the capital and elsewhere over hard living standards and corruption at state institutions. These demonstrations were driven by frustration at deteriorating economic conditions and the collapse of public services in a country torn by civil war since 2011 and where the humanitarian situation has been exacerbated by conflict and the spread of COVID-19.

These recent street protests point to a long built-up exasperation with the status quo and the leadership’s failure to provide basic amenities to the average Libyan.

Just two days after the announcement of a ceasefire on 21 August between the Government of National Accord (GNA), headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, and the Libyan National Army (LNA), commanded by General Khalifa Haftar, several hundred protesters marched to the GNA’s headquarters in Tripoli and converged on Martyrs’ Square to voice anger over miserable living conditions throughout the government’s five-year term.

Some of them carried white flags, signifying their lack of support for any of Libya’s factions, while others held pictures of Sarraj, Haftar, and the head of Libya’s eastern-based parliament Aguila Saleh, with their faces crossed out in red in a visual rejection of all the political actors in the oil-rich nation.

Since 2015, Libya has been divided between two rival governments, one aligned with the military commander’s self-styled LNA in the east based in Benghazi, and the other internationally-recognized and led by the Libyan Prime Minister Sarraj in the west in Tripoli, that have been vying for power with foreign backing. The GNA is backed by Turkey and Qatar, while Haftar’s LNA has enjoyed the support of France, Russia, Egypt and the UAE.

Rallies continued in the capital, even after PM Sarraj had previously tried to appease demonstrators by announcing the beginning of a cabinet reshuffle.

People took to the streets of several Libyan cities and towns beyond the capital including the western city of Misrata, Sebha in the south, and Sirte in the east. Like those in Tripoli, protesters in Sebha raised white flags denouncing poor living conditions in southern Libya under the control of the LNA.

Across Libya, citizens have struggled with daily problems such as the extended electricity outages (for as long as 20 hours per day), water and fuel shortages, Internet and telephone service deterioration, corruption, insecurity, and the increased cost of living amid an economic crisis partly prompted by a collapse in oil production.

These challenges come at a time when coronavirus infections in Libya have surged so far to 33,213 and the death toll to 527, with the country’s healthcare system close to full collapse after more than nine years of war.

Summer months in Libya exacerbate these ongoing issues. “I think this is one of the worst summers in Tripoli, if not the worst. No electricity for 12+ hours on a daily basis, you can barely sleep four continuous hours at night. Phone and Internet network is dead all day. And of course the cherry on top: COVID-19 spreading everywhere,” Libyan activist Amera Markous tweeted at the beginning of September.

To further complicate grave economic challenges, an oil blockade by authorities in the east of the country has been in place since January, intended to constrict resources to Tripoli’s government.

The August protests have shown that Libyans, regardless of whether they are in the east or the west, have become increasingly frustrated at the entire political spectrum and official corruption. Protesters have demonstrated a clear expression of public dissatisfaction, expressing that the current political elite lacks popular legitimacy.

“People rallied against authorities in the east and west of the country because the status-quo is just unacceptable for Libyans after years of civil war and with no prospect of compromise in sight”, Umberto Profazio, Maghreb Analyst at the NATO Defence College Foundation, underscored.

Already perceived as a government chosen by the international community with no local mandate, the GNA has failed to gain legitimacy due to its inability to resolve even one of the countless day-to-day problems.

Right after the country’s warring administrations announced a ceasefire separately and called for preparations for nationwide elections, the Libyans found this window of opportunity to come out in the public to condemn the ruling class as a whole and demand its dismantling.

The wave of popular discontent caught Sarraj at a very bad time amidst a power struggle within the UN-backed government, pitting the premier against Minister of Interior Fathi Bashagha. The GNA temporarily suspended Bashagha over allegations that he had been supporting the demonstrations and appointed a new defense minister and army chief days after the announcement of a government reshuffle. It was later forced to reinstate him under much domestic and international pressure.

Analysts viewed the reshuffle as part of a pre-emptive move by Sarraj against a feared coup by the interior minister—whom he saw as a threat to his power—as popular rallies went on for days in Tripoli and other western Libyan cities.

While Bashagha was key to the GNA repelling the 14-month offensive on Tripoli by Haftar’s LNA forces, he has always had an uneasy relationship with the prime minister, and nurtured wider political ambitions. Prior to the suspension of Bashagha, pro-GNA militias in the capital dispersed demonstrators with gunfire, in a display of government intolerance towards the escalating situation in areas under its control.

Such discomfort became clear when the Tripoli-based government imposed an emergency curfew under the guise of slowing the spread of COVID-19, three days after protests in the capital and the nearby town of Zawiya began to intensify. The decision angered protesters and their supporters, who saw it as an attempt to prevent more rallies.

Profazio specified that, unlike in the east, throughout the course of protests in western Libya political tensions resurfaced, namely existing divisions within the GNA and the conflict between the prime minister and interior minister, which highlighted the weak, divided nature of the central government.

For the Maghreb analyst, the latest wave of unrest confirmed the need for a “political turnover”; a new leadership who is able and willing to address the grievances of the population, reactivate essential services, and ensure the resumption of oil production and exportation.

Exhausted by a long-fought conflict, with the ever-present threat of renewed hostilities due to the presence of powerful militias and armed groups, and deprived of the most basic necessities, the Libyan people need to see the start of a new political process that leads to the end of the current crisis and of their suffering.

Tarek Megerisi, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), wrote early this month that the popular anger offers a chance to help diplomacy: “The energy of the current popular protests thus gives the UN the opportunity to try to [neutralize] the disruptive and stalling potential of these actors.” This would involve the UN directly engaging social and political leaders, from key parts of the country and among Libya’s marginalized communities, rather than relying on Libya’s politicians to draw and agree upon a transition plan.

Although the UN has repeatedly condemned ongoing violations of its arms embargo on Libya and external interference in Libya’s domestic affairs, the UN’s failure to identify weapons smugglers and embargo breakers has allowed foreign states meddle with impunity. This has complicated chances of a future settlement and further hinders the capability of Libyans to decide their own future.