ISTANBUL, TRIPOLI - When shots were heard in Tripoli’s Martyr’s Square Sunday evening, a few protesters scattered. Others cheered, arms aloft, shouting, “Libya! Libya!”
But the gunfire ended the anti-government protests in Tripoli, the seat of Libya’s internationally backed government, and authorities blamed “infiltrators” in the ranks of the security forces for the chaos.
It was the first protest of its kind in the city in at least five years, coming only two days after a cease-fire agreement formally ended a more than yearlong conflict that killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands.
“We just want simple basic services,” said protester Ahmed Bin Shaaban, 24. “Electricity cuts out for 15 to 20 hours a day… and medicine and food go bad. … When I go to the bank to pick up my salary, they say ‘We have no cash.’”
The protest was planned online for the anniversary of the day rebel forces stormed into Tripoli in 2011, forcing Moammar Gadhafi, who ruled the country with an iron fist for more than 40 years, to flee. He was later executed by rebels.
Since then, Libya has been embroiled in political conflicts and a series of civil wars.
By early evening, crowds in Martyr’s Square grew to hundreds, with other rallies in other parts of town attracting hundreds more. Protesters said these troubles, compounded by the coronavirus pandemic and rampant corruption, have left people desperate, angry and utterly hopeless.
Particularly galling to protesters is their lack of access to fuel when Libya has the biggest oil reserves in Africa.
“Anyone who is angry when they see their sister or wife waiting in long lines at the bank will support the protest,” Bin Shaaban said. “Anyone who is humiliated because their father is sleeping at the petrol station just to fuel his car will come here.”
Last year, crowds gathered weekly and sometimes daily in Tripoli to protest the assault on the city, led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar and his eastern military.
In June, the siege on Tripoli ended, and Haftar’s forces retreated after more than a year of violence.
The war was essentially between Libya’s two competing governments — the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj and backed by the United Nations. In the east, the government is led by Aguila Saleh, head of Libya's eastern-based Parliament.
Both governments issued pledges to a cease-fire and begin new talks on Friday.
Until recently, Haftar had been known as eastern Libya’s de-facto leader with powerful foreign allies. But the upcoming negotiations do not include him. The GNA has said it refuses to negotiate with him. On Sunday, Haftar rejected the deal through a spokesperson.
"The initiative that al-Sarraj signed is for media marketing," said Ahmed Mismari, spokesperson for Haftar's military. "There is a military buildup and the transfer of equipment to target our forces."
As the sun began to fade in Martyr’s Square on Sunday, Mohammed Abdusalam Dafus, a 23-year-old unemployed college graduate, said amid the fighting and political wrangling that the people have been grossly neglected. He said he fears if things do not change, anger will morph into street violence.
Nearby chants echoed the 2011 protests. Young men shouted, “The people demand the fall of the regime!”
“There is no justice, as far as I can see,” Dafus said.
In Misrata, Libya’s third largest city, dozens of people gathered outside of a government building stomping on pictures of officials and holding signs with slogans proclaiming, “We won’t be silent again you thieves!”
The demonstrations were mostly peaceful, but videos online show incidents of attacks on security forces’ vehicles. One person was injured when gunfire broke up the event. It is unclear who organized the protests.
By Monday, Tripoli government officials showed support for the protesters, saying it is their right to demand basic services. But officials offered no concrete plans to deliver the services.
Libya is still in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, which is particularly frightening since the country’s hospital system is in a state of near collapse from years of war. But protesters said economic collapse from lockdowns has so far proven more painful than the pandemic.
“People don’t even have ambitions anymore,” said Dafus. “There are no dreams.”
Salaheddin Almorjini contributed to this report from Tripoli, Libya.