Thousands of Libyans took to the streets on Friday to protest against a decision by the interim parliament to extend its mandate, despite fears that lingering political instability could unleash fresh violence.
The protests followed an attack late on Thursday last week on an army headquarters in Tripoli, the latest incident in Libya’s growing lawlessness since the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
Leading a transition that has proved chaotic since Qaddafi’s ouster and killing by NATO-backed rebels, the General National Congress (GNC) 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.
However, on Monday, the GNC 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 tensions gripping Libya.
Protests took place in other cities across the country, coming to a close without reports of unrest.
In central Tripoli’s Martyrs’ 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 blamed for the country’s protracted transition.
Others held up red cards and signs with the message: “07/02: Expiry date.”
In the evening, GNC lawmaker Jomaa al-Saeh announced in statements broadcast on television that he was quitting in line with the “people’s wishes.”
Another GNC member, Taoufik al-Chhibi, followed suit in a statement on his Facebook page and Libyan media also reported two other resignations in Zintan, southwest of Tripoli.
The GNC’s decision to extend its mandate has divided Libyans, stoking tensions and fears of a political vacuum.
The Alliance of National Forces, a liberal coalition and key political force, has sponsored a number of demonstrations demanding the dissolution of the GNC.
However, the Operations Cell of Revolutionaries, an Islamist militia of former 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.”
Further, rival former rebels from Zintan, an influential force in post-Qaddafi 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 Prime Minister Ali Zeidan, who defeated an Islamist-backed confidence vote against his government, but is still on the defensive.