Mob assaults and sets fire to Libya's Tobruk-based Parliament

The North African nation is threatening a new nationwide social upheaval amid a devastating social, political and economic crisis

MOHAMED EL SHAIKY/AFP  -   A Libyan Security Forces officer in the vicinity of the House of Representatives, seat of the legislature in Tobruk, March 2022

A large group of demonstrators stormed the Tobruk Parliament late on Friday, causing a large fire inside after the Security Forces withdrew. Minutes earlier, a mass mobilisation had been called for in the vicinity of the House of Representatives. The demonstrators, most of them young people living in precarious conditions, demanded its definitive dissolution and the immediate calling of elections to unblock the umpteenth political deadlock that has plunged Libya into a chronic crisis.

The images broadcast show several columns of smoke and how a demonstrator at the wheel of a bulldozer repeatedly hits one of the entrances to the parliament, allowing dozens of people to enter. Using construction machinery, they have demolished part of the building's structure and set fire to the interior, as well as setting fire to the vehicles of officials. As the flames licked the side of the building, shouts and chants were heard against the representatives.

The legislative body chaired by Aguila Salé, which has not undergone any electoral scrutiny since 2014, is accused by the protesters of treason and embezzlement. They also accuse the parliamentarians of having intentionally obstructed the transitional process opened in February 2021 after the end of the Libyan Political Dialogue Forum (LDPF) in Geneva, which elevated the unknown Misrata businessman Abdel Hamid Dbeibé as acting prime minister and mandated him to hold general elections by 24 December, without success.

"Saif al-Islam Gaddafi - son of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi - was expected to win [the elections] after being admitted to the presidential race and his supporters were expected to dominate the legislative race. [Eastern strongman Khalifa] Haftar and Dbeibé - who ran against the terms of the LDPF - might have lost," Libyan academic Mustafa Fetouri tells Atalayar, who blames the majority of current MPs and senior council members for the failed electoral process: "They want to delay [the elections] as long as possible given the benefits they are getting now, as most of them would never have been re-elected."

Two governments are now vying for power. The rifts between the western factions based in Tripoli and the eastern factions based in Tobruk, which had been on the verge of dissipating in the last peace process, resurfaced in February with the appointment of Fathi Bashagha as the new prime minister in a flawed vote in the Tobruk parliament, in what the eastern administration saw as the expiry of the mandate of Dbeibé, the visible head of the Government of National Unity, unable to put the transition on track.

PHOTO/AFP  -   Parliament building begins to burn after riots in the vicinity, 1 July 2022

Fetouri argues that political unity in Libya was never achieved, but he does not consider that there is an institutional division between two parallel administrations as it is interpreted, "simply because all the country's institutions are working according to the same laws". "It is a problem fabricated in order to maintain the balance of power and used by each side to put pressure on the other," the analyst notes.

Tobruk puts pressure on Tripoli, whose government continues to be recognised by the international community, despite having held several UN-sponsored negotiations to set a definitive roadmap leading to the polls. This explains why the eastern faction has for weeks been blockading oil installations in Libya, a country with the largest reserves of 'black gold' on the African continent. As a result, the National Oil Corporation (NOC) announced on Friday that services at several oil ports had been suspended after the expiry of the ultimatum given to Haftar's loyalists, who are responsible for the blockade, to reopen the fields.

Manifestación Trípoli
HAZEM AHMEDARA/REUTERS  -   Hundreds of yellow waistcoats rally in Tripoli's Martyrs' Square to protest against political fracture, 1 July 2022
Yellow Vests in Tripoli

The protracted blockade has exponentially reduced the supply of available fuel, which in turn has led to power outages and blackouts in several parts of the country, ultimately catalysing the protests. "High prices, growing insecurity, lack of freedom of expression and poor government services further aggravated by corruption," Fetouri said, "have become the main grievances of the protesters.

Tobruk was not the first city, nor will it be the last, to witness a new wave of mass protests in Libya, although it has witnessed the most serious so far with the storming and burning of the House of Representatives. Several enclaves in the country's three major regions - the two coastal regions of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, and the desert interior of Fezzan - have seen a series of protests this week in cities such as Benghazi, Al Baida and Misrata.

The situation is spreading across the country no matter which authorities are in charge. Hundreds of kilometres west of Tobruk, in Tripoli, another demonstration took place on Friday. A mob of protesters clad in yellow vests, in an image reminiscent of France in 2018, took over the capital's Martyrs' Square to demand an immediate change of course in the North African nation to tackle the daily problems of Libyan society, charging harshly against armed factions and politicians, and demanding elections.