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Militias take aim at Tripoli protesters

Dozens of protesters were killed and hundreds wounded in militia violence in Tripoli. Public anger is aimed at a weak government. Now, more militia fighters are marching toward the capital to fill a power vacuum.

Spared from violence for some time, the Libyan capital, Tripoli, has now again become the scene of an increasingly brutal battle for power. A week ago, existing rivalries between armed militias from different parts of the country began escalating. Those militias have been fighting for influence in the capital since the revolution in 2011. On Friday (15.11.2013), dozens of unarmed protesters were killed and at least 450 injured, according to official figures, when they called on troops from the coastal town of Misrata to leave Tripoli.

Militia violence continued into Saturday, when local authorities in Tripoli announced a "three-day general strike in all public and private sectors starting Sunday" in response to the violence.

Prime Minister Ali Zidan, who was briefly abducted by militiamen last month, appealed for "restraint and a halt to the clashes," warning that "the coming hours and days will be decisive for the history of Libya."

Political military maneuvers

Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan speaking during a media conference in Tripoli, Libya. (Photo: EPA/SABRI ELMHEDWI)

Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan

This week's escalation has its origin in an early November debate in Libya's parliament, where parliamentarians disagreed over the role that should be played by a revolutionary umbrella group in which several militias from the city of Misrata dominate.

Parliamentary Chairman Nuri Busahmain decided in August to hand over protection of the capital to this militia group. The decision was broadly considered a tactical move to weaken Zidan's government and to strengthen the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated opposition. Zidan's detainment by members of that operation cell in early October only strengthened that impression.

Watch video 01:19

Militia open fire on protesters in Libya

Zidan's government is shaped by a deep political rift which hinders the demobilization of the various battle groups. Influential local politicians and members of parliament rely on their respective military henchmen rather than the country's institutions to solve problems. Militia members themselves also press for influence.

In addition, rivalries between the armed groups for spheres of influence often escalates into violence. In a recent series of battles, former allies from Misrata and Tripoli suddenly faced off with heavy artillery. Embassies, government buildings and the Radisson Hotel, a first port of call for both diplomats and business travelers, were in the firing line. It was that incident which triggered civil protests in the capital that led to recent violence.

Calls for a new beginning

Popular outrage, however, has targeted not only the brigades, which often continue pursuing their own interests even after they're integrated in the police force and the army, but, increasingly, the country's new leadership.

During a nationwide protest last Saturday (9.11.2013), the newly founded ‘"November 9th movement" called for parliament to resign after the legislative period ends in February 2014, a parliamentary promise made in back in 2011. Since the, members of parliament had announced their desire to extend their mandate. Protest banners reading "No to extension" and "Yes to renewal" decorate the walls everywhere in Tripoli - even in public buildings.

Demonstration against the planned extension of the parliament's legislative period in Tripoli (Photo: Valerie Stocker/DW)

On November 9, protestors took to the streets against the planned extension of the legislative period

An increasing number of Libyans see the current situation as hopeless. Many believe a comprehensive restructuring of the political system is the only solution. But there's disagreement about the details.

Hatem Abubakr, who coordinates the protests in Tripoli, stressed that he doesn't intend to undermine the legitimacy of the elected institutions by any means. Instead he wants to wake up public officials and speed up the decision-making process by increasing civil pressure.

Hatem Abubakr from the NGO New Generation Movement (Photo: Valerie Stocker/ DW)

Hatem Abubakr from the NGO New Generation Movement organizes protests in Tripoli

"The ongoing arguments in parliament also cause a rift in our nation," he told DW. "While the members of parliament use every legal loophole to their advantage, they're dragging their feet in terms of establishing a constitution - and there is no end in sight."

Hardening fronts

Positions have become so entrenched that it doesn't look like the tensions in the country will disappear any time soon.

"We are entitled to Tripoli," said Misrata's head of militia Taha Bashaga. "We shall only leave the town in our coffins."

Reinforcement troops from Misrata are said to be on their way. But even if there ultimately is a ceasefire, it remains unclear who could possibly manage to ease tensions in the country - and get all conflict parties to sit down at the negotiating table.

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