x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Fears of violence as protesters cross Libya's red lines

Writing from Tripoli, Mustafa Fetouri describes people's reactions to the violence as the government's "red lines" are crossed by protesters.

'From the youth of Libya: beware not to cross the four red lines and if you do then come and see us in any street or square in our beloved country."

So read the anonymous SMS thousands of mobile phone subscribers received on February 16 - the day no one figured would change Libya forever. The "four red lines" as defined by Saif al Islam, the son of Col Muammar Qaddafi, a few years ago are: the leader, national unity, territorial integrity and Islam.

Less than 24 hours later, a couple of the red lines had already been crossed.

If that SMS says anything, it is this: the government's handling of the situation is disastrous. The battle has taken place on air, online and satellite channels such as Al Jazeera.

Already discredited, almost all official media outlets have reverted to their old tactics of drumming up national sentiment by airing a barrage of nationalist songs and printing articles celebrating the country and its achievements. There is no mention of those who have died or been injured, let alone the demonstrations themselves.

On the ground, things were exactly the opposite. Almost all eastern Libyan cities have been in turmoil, with next to no government presence except in Benghazi. Anti-government demonstrators in Benghazi, Berna and Djdabia torched government buildings, including law courts and utilities companies. In Al Bayda, protesters reportedly even mutilated the body of a security officer who was under orders not to fire on them even in self-defence, and to give up his headquarters if attacked.

One of his Tripoli-based relatives told me he was on the phone with him a couple of hours before he was killed and his body was dragged into the streets.It's worth noting that Al Bayda, a beautiful Mediterranean city 200 kilometres east of Benghazi, is the hometown of Col Qaddafi's in-laws, as well as the favourite holiday destination of his son.

Caught by surprise, the already unprofessional civilian police were outgunned and outnumbered. Fearing for their lives and gripped by the panic of the moment, they resorted to fire. It's indeed hard to tell who did what first, but it's clear that violence has now broken out between security forces and anti-government protesters.

A resident of Dejdabi, a town 130 kilometres west of Benghazi, gave me a rather detailed description of what was going on in his hometown. Over nearly an hour, weeping over the phone, he described scenes of chaos and the total absence of security. The number of people setting government buildings ablaze were "less than 200 local thugs and drug addicts", he said.

According to this eyewitness, who did not want to be identified, it appeared that security and police were ordered to give up their headquarters to avoid violent clashes with the demonstrators. "They [the demonstrators] would gather in the main square and move on to burn another building already identified by some of them." They had no leadership, lacked a political agenda and were mostly unemployed youths.

By the end of last Friday, not a single government building in Dejdabi was left without damage. Earlier that night, protesters grouped again in the square. This time, a man in his 40s appeared and advised them to be quiet, saying: "You have made your point, and this is our town, which we should not destroy anymore."

The government strategy appeared to hold back the full force of the army. Indeed, one death is far too much, but it could have been massacres of hundreds of people had the regime used its full force to quell the demonstrations. With the army already on the ground in Benghazi, the question is whether this strategy will hold.

The situation in Tripoli seems to be the opposite. Friday night, I toured the city starting from the centre and moving west, from the exclusive neighbourhood of Gagaresh to the poor over-crowded shanty town of Guy Ash-aal, and it was eerily quiet, including in Green Square (or Martyr's Square) in the city centre next to the southern walls of the Old City.

People from all walks of life came out in support of the Libyan leader, who joined them the night before in a demonstration along Omar al Mukhtar street, which runs from the square westwards. Food and water supplies were fetched by people themselves and the only indication of government presence was the two ambulance and dozen police officers around the square.

Just before midnight last Friday, I received another text along with thousands of other people. This time, it said: "Safeguard the homeland's integrity and stability. Libya is for all of us."

Mustafa Fetouri is an academic and political analyst based in Tripoli. He won the Samir Kassir Award for Best Opinion Article in 2010