The Unfolding Crisis in Libya: By GARY LEUPP
The crisis began six weeks ago, slowly building to the confrontation last week. On Wednesday, Feb. 16, there was a demonstration in al-Bayda against poor housing conditions, while the arrest of a lawyer and human rights campaigner named Fethi Tarbel (or Fathi Terbil) sparked protests in Benghazi. Tarbel, who had represented the families of prisoners killed in the suppression of an uprising in 1996 in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison, had been arrested in Benghazi at 3:00 p.m. the day before, questioned then released Wednesday afternoon. According to the Libyan newspaper Quryna, he had been detained on charges of spreading false rumors about Abu Salim being on fire. Meanwhile 110 Abu Salim prisoners belonging to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group were also released.
It doesn’t seem that the protests were entirely nonviolent; indeed, BBC reported Feb. 16, “The protesters are said to have thrown stones and petrol bombs, and set vehicles alight. Witnesses said police used rubber bullets and water cannon to disperse them.” Hospital officials say 38 were treated for wounds incurred in clashes, all released the next day.
The protests continued, quickly assuming an anti-Gaddafi character. On Friday protests spread in eastern Libya, including Benghazi. These too were violent. The France24 headline was “Violent Protests Rock Libyan City of Benghazi.” AP reported that protesters in al-Bayda set police stations on fire. The protests don’t seem to have been very large initially; BBC estimated the Benghazi crowd at “up to 2,000.” Libyan officials reported, perhaps accurately, that the demonstrations were small and “infiltrated” by violent elements.
Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch's merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades. He can be reached at:email@example.com