Demonstrations by hundreds of people in Libya’s second city of Benghazi yesterday were met with rubber bullets and water cannon: at least one person died and around 14 were injured, including 10 police officers, according to media reports. Yesterday also saw the first mass demonstrations by Libyan women against the regime. ‘No one is clear what is going to happen or what is being planned,’ a Libyan opposition figure told me. ‘There are no opposition movements inside Libya but many young people have had enough of the regime.’
The unrest comes on the back of four weeks of mounting political activity by opposition groups and activists calling for a popular uprising like those in Libya’s neighbours Tunisia and Egypt. There’s a lot of cyber-activity among opposition groups and activists, and pages have been set-up on Facebook and other social media sites with names like ‘The Day of Anger in Libya against Corruption and Nepotism’ or ‘The Revolution of the Free Ones in Libya’.
Yesterday’s demonstrations took the authorities by surprise: Libya’s ‘Day of Rage’ was not scheduled to take place until tomorrow, the anniversary of the 2006 Benghazi Uprising in which 11 demonstrators were killed and the Italian consulate was burned down. But the regime is determined to hold onto power and is fighting back any way it can.
Last week Colonel Gaddafi called a meeting in Tripoli of the so-called ‘social leadership’ and told them to stop the Day of Rage taking place. Meetings have also been held with journalists and media figures in an attempt to disperse the gathering storm. There are no foreign media correspondents in Libya, and the al-Jazeera bureau has been closed down. Gaddafi has said that he will personally appear at the head of pro-regime demonstrations tomorrow, but whether he does remains to be seen.
Today the regime made a surprise announcement that tomorrow will be a national public holiday, and schools and universities will be closed. Opposition activists describe the move as a sign of official panic at student movements, above all in Benghazi’s Garyounis University, but it may backfire as it could free up more people to demonstrate. Several football matches have also been cancelled: any large public gathering in Libya can quickly turn into an anti-government demonstration. The Benghazi Uprising began as a protest against the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.
Chinese and Indian computer experts have been hired to bring down opposition websites. Nearly every major Libyan opposition website has been affected and many are down. Only Libya Watanona, based in the US, is currently functioning normally. The regime has been cracking down on cyber-activists inside the country. Earlier this month, Jamal al-Hajji was arrested by ten plain-clothed security officials in a car park for alleged driving offences after posting a call on the internet for peaceful demonstrations. There are reports of other bloggers and activists being targeted or abducted by police.
Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, Libya has substantial oil wealth and steps have been taken to placate the people by raising salaries and releasing some political prisoners. But this is uncharted territory for Libya: no one can say with certainty what proportion of the population support the regime, but in recent years the people have grown fed up above all with the wild and unruly behaviour of Gaddafi’s sons, who are widely hated for their corruption and thuggery. There is incipient support for anti-regime activity across the country but how many people will be brave enough to take part in a demonstration remains to be seen. More protests are likely in Benghazi and surrounding towns like al-Bayda, Durna and Cyrene, but if they spread to Tripoli and the regime appears weakened, change could come very quickly.
There are also signs of growing activity outside the Libyan People’s Bureau in Knightsbridge, where a large demonstration is expected tomorrow. Meanwhile covert activity against Libyan opposition figures in the West has been stepped up. On 7 February a Libyan man in Germany, identified only as Omar K., was found guilty of spying for his country’s intelligence service on Libyans in exile, the second Libyan to be convicted of espionage in Berlin in a week. According to a Libyan civil servant working in London, several hundred of the approximately 5000 Libyan students living in the UK are government agents.