- By Mohamed EljarhMohamed Eljarh is a writer for Foreign Policy's Democracy Lab and a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. Follow him on Twitter at @Eljarh.
This morning, hundreds of demonstrators gathered in the city of Zawiya, about 40 km west of the capital, to denounce the takeover of government ministries by armed groups in Tripoli. The demonstration moved on to both Algeria and Martyrs Square, with numbers growing by the hour. The protesters, who have remained there, are calling for the disbanding of all armed militias in Tripoli and the end of the siege.
The demonstrations come days after a plea from Prime Minister Ali Zeidan for the public to support legitimate democratic processes through peaceful protests. His comments came on Sunday, April 28, when armed men started a systematic violent takeover of government institutions in Tripoli. Shortly after, Zeidan warned of a dangerous security situation as gunmen began storming the Interior Ministry and a state-owned television station after blocking access to the Foreign Ministry.
The assailants are demanding that the Libyan government pass the controversial isolation law immediately. They have now moved on to the Ministry of Justice, where they have ejected the staff and minister from the building. The ministries that have been attacked have been closed since the siege began. These events have prompted the General National Congress (GNC) to postpone its Tuesday session amid fears that the militias would storm it in an attempt to force GNC members into passing the law.
According to the GNC spokesperson, Omar Hmaidan, the vote on the isolation law will now take place on Sunday, May 5, with only minor sticking points to be agreed on by the different blocs within the GNC.
However, the armed protesters have now shifted to calling for the dismissal of Prime Minister Zeidan and the formation of a new government. Only the GNC can put Zeidan’s government up for a vote of confidence, and it is highly unlikely that it will take such a move. Zeidan is accused of strengthening the grip of Qaddafi’s men on government institutions by keeping them in their posts and hiring others to leading posts. The prime minister has dismissed the accusations, refusing to be intimidated by armed militias.
The government is trying to take an inclusive approach to move the country forward. Supporters of the isolation law would rather see the government adopt an exclusionary approach towards all individuals associated with the Qaddafi regime.
From the outside, the current events in Tripoli might seem specifically related to the isolation law, but in reality, there are hidden agendas driving the escalation of the situation. They have much to do with the struggle for power and influence. The young armed protesters currently besieging the government ministries have been co-opted by the proponents of the isolation law, and seem to be misinformed about the whole issue.
When asked about their reasons for the armed siege of government ministries, one of the young armed protesters said the following: "I went to a government institution to get something done, and the guy at the reception was a Qaddafi loyalist. These people need to be purged." However, the proposed law does not apply to low-level government employees, and this shows the clear misconception among the young armed protesters. (The problem with this mentality is that the smallest pretext can be used to label anyone as a Qaddafi loyalist.)
The leaders behind the armed takeover in Tripoli are individuals who ran as candidates in the GNC’s general elections in July 2012. However, they failed to secure any support from the voters in their constituencies, so they decided to form a coalition to champion the calls for the isolation of pro-regime individuals. The real aim is not good governance or legitimacy, but obtaining power, which they failed to achieve through the democratic process. They are now opting to use the armed militias to gain influence.
The anti-militia protesters have vowed to continue their demonstrations until Tripoli becomes militia-free. There are calls for nationwide demonstrations to take place tomorrow. In light of the recent surge of violence, there have been renewed calls for serious steps towards creating a national army and police force. So far, the army and police forces are still in disarray. Army officers are accusing current army chief Youssef al-Mangoush of corruption, lack of leadership, and leniency toward the militias.
The government has a valuable opportunity to capitalize on the public mobilization to disband the armed militias in Tripoli. So far they have stuck to a policy of restraint. This, however, has only led to more attacks on government forces; countermeasures need to be taken now.
In a show of unity, Deputy GNC President Guma Attigha held a press conference this evening along with Prime Minister Zeidan and the leaders of the different blocs within the GNC. Attigha affirmed the government’s commitment to democratic legitimacy, the rights of Libyans to peacefully protest, and unity of the Libyan nation.
The U.N. mission in Libya issued a statement calling on Libyans to solve their differences through dialogue, not violence or armed action. The U.N. Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) said that all Libyans should remain true to the aim of the Libyan revolution — the creation of a modern, strong state based on democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.
Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his posts here.