Pro-Democracy Protesters Rise Up in Libya
Hundreds of protesters took to the streets in Benghazi, Libya, Tuesday, two days ahead of expected demonstrations commemorating the killing by police of 18 protesters in the city on Feb. 17, 2006. That Thursday protest - a "Day of Rage" - was called by the National Conference for the Libyan Opposition and assorted other Libyan dissident groups seeking an end to Muammar Gaddafi's 41-year rule.
Among the chants to be heard in the video below, posted at the site enoughgaddfi:
Nudi, nudi, ya Benghazi, hada yumik! (Wake up, wake up, Benghazi! This is your day!)
According to posts on Facebook sites such as this one, the protest started in Benghazi because of the arrest Tuesday of Fatih Tarbel, the coordinator of the victims of Tripoli's Abu Salim Prison. In June 1996, 1200 detainees - many of them political prisoners - were taken from the prison and executed over the course of a few hours. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have looked into the matter. The Libyan government has denied the massacre. But a small and very brave group of Libyans led by Tarbel has been standing in vigil, protesting the massacre once a week for more than a year.
When word of his arrest spread via cell-phone and Facebook Tuesday, families of the victims flooded into the streets to protest. Soon others turned out. Protesters reportedly arrived in small groups from various parts of the city to congregate on Gamal Abdel Nasser Street in front of the police station. Eventually, according to a Libyan exile in North America who has been working via Facebook to organize protests on Feb. 17, some protesters in the crowd threw stones at the police.
One resident of the city reached by phone who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal, said, "The entire city is awake." Unconfirmed estimates put the crowd just after dark in Benghazi at about 2000. At the time of this writing (8 p.m. Pacific Time), hundreds were still in the streets.
There have also been reports of smaller protests in Tripoli, the capital, and the cities of Zawihyah, Bani Walid and Darnah, all on the Mediterranean coast, and Werfallah, a couple of hundred miles southeast of Tripoli.
According to another activist I spoke with, the Benghazi protesters received support via Facebook about posting YouTube videos, organizing, dealing with the effects of tear gas, etc., from Egyptians and Tunisians who have just seen their own resistance topple authoritarian rulers.
Tuesday's protest was not the first this year in Libya. In January, residents of many cities protested over housing shortages.
In the weeks since the Feb. 17 protests start being discussed on Facebook and other social media, the government has cracked down on well-known opposition figures. Among them was Faraj Ehmid and his family. During the Tunisian uprising, Ehmid had stated during an interview with an outside reporter that the family would give up its Libyan citizenship unless Gaddafi stepped down. They were all arrested and are still being held in custody.
On Feb.1, the government also arrested Jamal al-Hajji, an exile who used to live in Denmark, but returned to Libya when Gadhafi's son Saif asked Libyans abroad to return to a changed country where opposition would be allowed. He subsequently said to an international organization that he wanted to start an organization loosely translated as Supporters of Freedom. On Facebook he called for peaceful demonstrations. Shortly thereafter, he was beaten in the street by what were presumably police in civilian dress and arrested on what unconfirmed reports by dissidents said was planted evidence. He is being held at an unknown location.
Last month, Gaddafi met with Libyan political activists, journalists, and media figures and warned them that they would be held responsible if they participated "in any way in disturbing the peace or creating chaos in Libya." In an attempt either to co-opt or discredit the Feb. 17 protests, the erratic Gaddafi has said he may himself protest that day.
The web site enoughgaddafi, operated by second-generation Libyans in the United States, noted on Feb. 1:
Even when one considers many of the factors that are pushing protestors into the streets in neighboring nations, Libya’s record is abysmal, or maybe even absurd. Libya is reported to have higher unemployment rates and a worse record of corruption than both Tunisia and Egypt. And despite Libya’s substantially higher GDP, estimates suggest that at least a third of the population still lives under the poverty line. In other words, while there is more revenue coming into the country per person in Libya than into its neighbors, a large portion of the Libyan population cannot access the benefits of those resources. And despite oil-revenues and a miniscule population, all levels of Libyan public services and infrastructure are horribly underdeveloped. All of this fuels the generally held perception in Libya that that the regime squanders resources that would be the envy of its neighbors, while neglecting its population and providing public services of an inferior quality. Anyone who has ever been at the Tunisian and Libyan border will attest to the masses of Libyans travelling to much poorer Tunisia for medical attention as a result of Libya’s miserably underserviced and underfunded healthcare system.
Libyans have special reasons to be upset at the government's failure to provide economically for them. Per capita GDP is set at about $13,600 and the country has the largest oil reserves on the African continent.