Protesters stormed the offices of Libya’s transitional government, the National Transitional Council, in Benghazi on Saturday. Armed with hand grenades, several hundred protesters banged on the building’s doors and demanded that government officials meet with them. NTC chief Mustafa Abdul Jalil tried to speak from a second-floor balcony and was pelted with bottles, after which protesters torched his armored Land Cruiser and broke windows to get into the building. They then seized furniture and computers as 50 plainclothes security forces sought to calm them.
The immediate reason for the protests was the release online of a draft election law for the 200 members of the constituent assembly to be held in February. Activists said that this draft had been “prepared without consultation or public oversight and that its winner-take-all rules would encourage Libyans to vote along tribal lines or for locally rich or prominent citizens,” rather than for those seeking to form new parties.
Three months after the end of the civil war that ousted Muammar el-Gaddafi, many Libyans have grown frustrated with the pace of reforms and the NTC’s lack of transparency; others have accused the NTC of sidelining anti-Gaddafi fighters. As Salwa Bugaighis, a lawyer and political activist who played a prominent role in the uprising, told the New York Times:
“We are worried,” she said. “We are afraid that maybe it becomes worse.”
She said that protesters in Benghazi directed much of their rage at allegations that millions of dollars — and perhaps billions — in government money had gone unaccounted for.
“They want transparency. They want people from the Qaddafi regime to go,” she said. “If there’s no transparency, everything will collapse.”
In response to the protests, the deputy head of the NTC, Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, resigned on Sunday. Ghoga, who has been accused of being an “opportunist” because he belatedly switched allegiances from Gaddafi to the rebels and the NTC, said that “My resignation is for the benefit of the nation and is required at this stage.”
Jalil addressed the protesters on Sunday and asked them for more patience as the NTC struggles to establish a government in Libya after three decades of Gaddafi’s authoritarian rule and the civil war. According to Reuters, Jalil said:
“We are going through a political movement that can take the country to a bottomless pit. There is something behind these protests that is not for the good of the country.
“The people have not given the government enough time and the government does not have enough money. Maybe there are delays, but the government has only been working for two months. Give them a chance, at least two months.”
The NTC has also been criticized for not being able to address issues such as restoring basic services to some areas and to assisting Surt and Bani Walid, towns that were loyal to Gaddafi.
In the capital of Tripoli, regional militias controlled by their own commanders, rather than government security forces, police the streets; protesters have set up a tent city in Tripoli, across the street from the Prime Minister’s office. Protests have also occurred in Misurata, which is run by a rival leadership council and where the local government is planning to hold elections in February but without the NTC’s approval.
Fred Abrahams, a special adviser on Libya for Human Rights Watch, told the New York Times that the protests and the ensuing political crisis show the “extreme challenges after four decades of dictatorship.” Removing Gaddafi was only the start; “getting a representative and transparent government to replace him” is proving far more complicated.
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Photo of Libyan fighters from Adjebia taken in March 2011 by America-Aboard