Libyan prime minister also announces resignation as displaying of Gaddafi-era green flags in south highlights growing frustration
The death penalty verdicts passed on Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and eight regime-era officials by the Tripoli Appeals Court at the end of July have sparked a backlash of protests across Libya, showing that the green flag of Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year rule is more than just a historic artefact.
The largest demonstration was held in the southern town of Sabha on 7 August, where residents reported many hundred protesters taking to the streets in one district. The protest, described as peaceful by local resident Mohamed, was dispersed after security personnel opened fire, he said, killing at least four people and injuring many more.
Previous modest pro-Gaddafi celebrations in the town had been overlooked by the Misratan-led Third Force, stationed in Sabha for over a year - originally to act as a peacekeeping force following local clashes.
“This time, I think the Third Force saw the seriousness of the pro-Gaddafi movement because a demonstration this big has not been seen in the last four years,” said Mohamed. “There were a lot of people, including women and children, and people were not afraid to show their faces.”
He said that the protest had two purposes. The first was taking action against the decision made by the Tripoli Court and calling for the release of Saif, and the second was to try and pressurise the Third Force to leave Libya’s south. “People don’t want them to be in control here any more, but they don’t want to leave because the south has Libya’s most important resources - the oil and the water.”
Protests were also reported in Brak, some 40 miles north of Sabha, where most residents are from the same tribe as Abdullah Senussi, Gaddafi’s former head of intelligence, who was also sentenced to death by the Tripoli Court.
Green flags on streets
Protests in the town went undisturbed by any military presence because the Third Force have failed to gain control over the town despite attempts to do so in March this year. Residents from the Senussi tribe have also threatened to turn off a local pumping station for the Man Made River, which supplies water to the capital Tripoli, unless the ruling against Senussi is overturned.
There were modest protests in territory controlled by the Islamic State (IS) group, including in Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte. Loyalists to the former regime were dispersed by IS militants who fired warning shots in the air, said one local resident, speaking on condition of anonymity. Four women and three men were arrested at the protest and held for questioning.
Residents in other IS-controlled towns were cautious about protesting. “IS had threatened to shoot anyone who protested on Friday, so there were no green flags in towns they control, apart from Sirte, although there are some green flags flying in remote desert areas,” he said. “But if these protests get stronger across the whole of Libya, people will become braver and we will see more green flags. I know many people who are just waiting for the right time to protest.”
Even in Benghazi, the birthplace of the 2011 revolution, there was a small protest. “I saw about 30 or 40 people with green flags and pictures of Saif when I was driving home. I felt like I was going back in time, like I was in a time machine,” said 34-year-old Jamal. “I was really shocked and I slowed down to look but then I saw the military coming, moving very quickly, so I drove on.”
He said that the timing of the protest was unfortunate. “I know many people are hoping for a return to how life was in Gaddafi’s time, and I believe in democracy and freedom of speech, but now is not the right time for this kind of protest because there is a war in Benghazi.”
'Everybody is fed up'
The protests have been a public representation of a badly kept secret in Libya, that the pro-Gaddafi movement which has existed since the 2011 revolution has grown in strength, born out of dissatisfaction with the way life has worked out for many ordinary citizens in the last four years.
In western Libya, many people say they are scared of openly expressing contentious opinions, but their loyalties are still played out by watching one of Libya’s two "green" television stations, broadcast from Egypt.
In Libya’s more remote towns, daily life has become so difficult - with food and fuel prices skyrocketing, a shortage of cash and the payment of public-sector salaries routinely delayed by months - that pent-up frustration has pushed people into taking action, Mohamed said.
“Everybody is fed up with this terrible situation and we can no longer keep quiet,” he said. “The green flag now hangs in many places in Sabha. Not in the central districts which are controlled by Misrata’s Third Force, but in known Gaddafi loyalist areas.”
He added that some people who had originally supported the 2011 revolution had joined the protests.
Longing for Gaddafi era stability
“Most Libyans just want a quiet life. They don’t care who takes over or who controls Libya’s money, they just want a comfortable life. That’s why Gaddafi stayed in power for 42 years. Salaries were paid on time, we had good subsidies on all the essentials and living was cheap.”
However, images circulating on social media of green flags raised once again in Libya have sparked fierce debate, especially amongst those who suffered under the harsh rule of Gaddafi, or who lost family members during the revolution.
“While Saif is alive and in Libya, there will never be peace,” said one former revolutionary fighter. “Many people think he and Senussi must be executed, for the stability of the country, because they remain central power symbols of the former regime. If they are killed, it will put an end to these protests.”
In a country already riven by loyalties to opposing regions, tribes and political sides, the Gaddafi-loyalist protests depict yet another division in Libya and one that is unlikely to quietly fade away.
Despite the crackdowns on protestors in Sabha and an increased military presence in some other towns which showed dissent, further demonstrations are being planned across Libya for this coming Friday. Mohamed explained that it was hoped these would be held under a white flag of peace, rather than either the green flag of the Gaddafi-era or the Libyan revolution flag.
Prime minister resigns on TV
In an unrelated move late Tuesday, Abdullah al-Thani, the prime minister of Libya's internationally recognised government, announced his resignation during a live television interview.
"If my exit is the solution, then I announce it here," al-Thani said during the talk show, adding that "my resignation will be submitted to the parliament on Sunday".
Earlier in the day the rival Libyan factions started a new UN-sponsored round of peace talks in Geneva aimed at creating a unity government, with representatives of the powerful Tripoli parliament joining the negotiations after boycotting them last month.