UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called for calm as street demonstrations spread across Libya to protest power cuts and the failure to hold national elections.
Talks between the Libyan factions in Geneva, convened by UN special adviser Stephanie Williams, advanced last week but without agreement on a constitution for the elections.
On Friday night, protesters stormed parliament in the eastern city of Tobruk as anger exploded over deteriorating living conditions and the political deadlock.
“The Secretary-General follows with concern the demonstrations that took place in several cities in Libya, including Tripoli, Tobruk and Benghazi,” Guterres’ office said in a statement.
The UN chief urged the protesters to “avoid acts of violence and to urge security forces to exercise extreme restraint.”
According to the statement, Guterres also called on “Libyan actors to unite to break the ongoing political deadlock,” which is a negative “deepening of division.”
After a year of relative calm in the face of endless political infighting, Libyan protesters appear to have lost patience with the political class and said they would continue demonstrating until all ruling elites relinquished power.
Williams had hoped the December election would see a changing of the guard in the country, but disputes over the constitution, the eligibility of certain presidential candidates and the dominance of the old figures who have controlled the political landscape for the past decade led to their repeal.
Since the failure of the elections, Williams has been trying to persuade factions in the east and west of the country to agree on a future constitution for the country as a prerequisite for holding the elections.
Ultimately, it may be the street protests, including Friday’s parliamentary storm in Tobruk, that will mobilize the political elite to make the necessary compromises.
This weekend, protesters in the capital Tripoli held their biggest rallies in years, shouting slogans against Libya’s feuding political elites, while protesters blocked roads in Benghazi and Misrata and torched government buildings in Sebha and Qarabuli.
“We reiterate our determination to continue down the path of peaceful demonstration to the last breath to achieve our goals,” said youth movement Beltrees, a group of online activists who are angry at the living conditions.
She said she will occupy the city’s streets and squares until all ruling political bodies “publicly announce their resignations.”
The country is divided between the east-based House of Representatives, which appointed Fathi Bashagha as prime minister, and the Tripoli-based interim government led by Abdul Hamid Dbeibah.
As part of an earlier agreement, Dbeibah had pledged to stand down in the elections but then refused, prompting Bashaga to make a thwarted attempt to seize Tripoli.
Dbeibah said on Friday that all members of Libya’s political institutions should quit and hold elections, but Williams said there was no choice but to agree on a constitutional framework to hold the first presidential election in the country’s history. “The only way to gain real legitimacy is through the ballot box,” she said. She warned that the poorest and most needy have been marginalized by political infighting.
Neither the Parliament of Tobruk nor the western-based High Council of State can claim credible mandates to remain in power, having been elected back in 2011, but the previous lack of visible public anger has so far left the existing class safely in power, both through patronage and Access to Libya’s vast oil wealth to distribute generosity to key groups.