On Sunday March 3, Libyan security forces attempted forcibly to remove around 30 war amputees who had been occupying the General National Congress building for the previous month. The operation failed, but two days later a deal was struck with the men and they finally vacated the premises. Local residents, including myself, were relieved, as the protestors had been causing disruption in the area for weeks. However the eviction was a bittersweet victory for the government, if indeed it can be called a victory at all.
The group of war amputees forced their way into the GNC building on February 3, refusing to leave until the government met their demands for medical treatment abroad and lifelong benefits to compensate for disabilities sustained during the revolution. At first, as heroes of the revolution, they had public support and negotiations between them and the GNC were amicable. However as time dragged on, relations soured. Public resentment against the armed squatters grew, as it emerged that they had turned down very generous offers of financial support for them and their families. The image of hard-done-by heroes fighting for their rights was quickly supplanted with that of armed thugs using the threat of violence to milk as much as they could from the Libyan state for their own personal gain.
In the end, it was not state security forces, nor negotiations by Libya's elected powers that ensured the departure of these protestors from the GNC building. Rather it was the threat of action from local residents, who had had enough of their disruptive antics, which sealed their departure. The details of the financial package they eventually walked away with have not yet been made public.
On the same day the parliament building was finally liberated, the GNC held a session in a different, secret location in the hope that MPs could finally discuss issues of national importance (namely the budget) without being disrupted or disturbed. Unfortunately the new location was leaked and protestors surrounded the building. This time the issue was the controversial Political Isolation Law aimed at barring anyone with any connection to the Gaddafi regime from holding office. Protestors refused to let anyone leave the building or food to be allowed in until Congress passed the Law. One MP was attacked and forced back as he tried to leave, and the vehicle carrying GNC President Mohamed Magarief was shot at several times as it departed, although luckily no one was injured.
The culmination of these protests over the past few days has led to feelings of great resentment and frustration across Libya, feelings aimed both at the protestors and the government. Libyans fought the revolution to gain their freedom, and as such the right to protest has become of the utmost importance since Libya's liberation, both practically and symbolically. However, in a country which has no history or experience of public protest or democratic principles, the right to protest has been deliberately twisted or unintentionally misunderstood by many.
Public protests should be a peaceful expression of opinion; they should not be violent or coercive. Protesting means you are sharing your point of view with the rest of the country, you are making a stand. A protest or demonstration may reflect popular opinion, or it may reflect the views of a minority. Either way, the aim is to raise awareness and initiate dialogue in order to try to affect change. In a democracy, everyone has the right to make their voices heard, but there are a multitude of different voices out there, so in order to force the state to take action, protestors need to persuade, convince and win over the public so that they demand action from their elected representatives.
However in Libya, many young men (and it does seem to be exclusively men) seem to have understood their right to protest as the right to compel politicians to do their bidding by force and violence. Instead of popular, peaceful protest, these men are holding the state hostage in order to achieve their own personal demands. As is the case with the war amputees and supporters of the Political Isolation Law, protestors claim they are fighting to protect the revolution. However by blackmailing the state and disrupting crucial legislative work, they are actually doing more to harm to the aims of the revolution than probably even the most diehard Gaddafi supporter could manage at this moment in time.
The GNC and government need to start taking some definitive action as far as security is concerned. They have let a situation evolve whereby every young man with a gun thinks he can take the state hostage and get away with it. Protestors who act outside of the law should be arrested and punished, and the GNC needs to make sure it has a security force which can actually protect its members and its property. If they do not do this soon, more and more people will realise they can get what they want by force and 'protests' such as this will only increase.
Although the state is responsible for enforcing law and order, protestors also need to remember that with rights come responsibilities. 'Protesting' is not an excuse for committing crimes or using violence. You cannot claim to be fighting in the name of freedom and democracy when in reality your coercive actions are preventing Libya from progressing on the road towards a more democratic society, governed by rule of law.
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