TRIPOLI: Thousands of Libyans took to the streets peacefully Friday to protest against a decision by the interim parliament to extend its mandate, amid fears that lingering political instability could unleash fresh violence.
The fears rose after an overnight attack on army headquarters in Tripoli, the latest incident in the growing lawlessness gripping the country since the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
Leading a transition that has proved chaotic since Gadhafi’s ouster and killing by NATO-backed rebels, the General National Congress was elected in July 2012 for a term of 18 months.
Its mission was to organize elections to a constituent assembly later this month that would be followed by a general election.
But the GNC Monday ratified a decision to extend its mandate to December, despite opposition by a large segment of the population critical of its inability to halt Libya’s slide into chaos.
Friday’s demonstrations in Tripoli and the eastern city of Benghazi – cradle of the 2011 uprising – were peaceful but reflected the tensions gripping Libya.
In central Tripoli’s Martyr Square and outside Benghazi’s Tibesti hotel, hundreds of protesters gathered and chanted “No to the extension.”
Many of them carried brooms to symbolize their wish to sweep away the interim authorities, whom they blame for the country’s protracted political transition.
Others held up red cards and placards with the message: “07/02: Expiry date.”
The GNC’s decision to extend its mandate has divided Libyans, stoking tensions in the country and fears of a political vacuum.
The Alliance of National Forces, a liberal grouping and key political force in the country, has sponsored a number of recent protests demanding the dissolution of the GNC.
But the Operations Cell of Revolutionaries, an Islamist militia of ex-rebels said to be close to the army, has lined up behind the GNC, and the powerful armed groups from Libya’s third city Misrata have called the body “a red line.”
And rival former rebels from Zintan, in the mountains southwest of Tripoli, an influential force in post-Gadhafi Libya, have vowed to protect any popular movement that goes against the GNC.
Mufti Sadek al-Ghariani, Libya’s top religious authority, has defended “the legitimacy of the GNC” and warned against chaos in the country.
The political bickering comes at a time of uncertainty over the fate of independent premier Ali Zeidan, who defeated an Islamist-backed confidence vote against his government but is still on the defensive.
Zeidan Friday urged protesters to demonstrate peacefully, saying “everything can be achieved peacefully and through dialogue.”
And interim Interior Minister Seddik Abdelkarim, who escaped an assassination attempt late last month, issued an order late Thursday for security forces to “protect peaceful demonstrators.”
But a member of the “No Extension” movement said the movement was not organising any protests, with one member saying that “with so many armed groups, we fear things could get out of hand.”
The growing insecurity more than two years after Gadhafi’s ouster was highlighted in Tripoli late Thursday, with a military spokesman saying unidentified gunmen had tried to enter army headquarters but guards prevented them from doing so.
“The attackers ransacked cars and stole some weapons before pulling back,” Colonel Ali al-Sheikhi told AFP of the incident, in which no one was hurt.
A separate military source gave a different version of events, saying fighting broke out after a dispute among soldiers.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya called on all parties in the country, including armed men, to engage in a dialogue to spare it further violence.
“In the present context, UNSMIL believes that political competition and conflicting views do not justify, in any way, the use of violence or the threat of it,” a statement said.