HAVANA TIMES, Feb 18 (IPS) — The movement for change sweeping across the Middle East has now rocked Libya. Thousands of people have taken to the streets across many cities to demand an end to the 41-year autocratic rule of maverick leader Muammar Al- Gaddafi.
International human rights organizations say at least 24 people have died since the protests erupted Thursday. The regime, encountering its first ever major challenge, launched a violent crackdown.
As with the revolutions that swept two dictators out of office in Tunisia and Egypt, social media remains the most robust source for information on the public revolt in Libya.
The unrest started when Internet activists opposed to the decades-long dictatorial rule of Gaddafi called for a “day of rage” on Feb. 17 to demand his ouster. Activists set up a website to compile web-posts and information on the unrest (http://www.libyafeb17.com/).
Videos filmed with mobile phones show demonstrators in the eastern province of Benghazi attacking the offices of Gaddafi’s so-called people’s committees, which are really government offices.
Young protesters also destroyed official statues of The Green Book, authored by Gaddafi as the country’s de facto constitution in which he spells out his ideology.
“The people want regime change,” protesters chanted in online videos, picking up slogans from the Egyptian revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak.
“Down, Down with the Dictator,” Libyan protesters shouted in recordings of demonstrations.
Most of the complaints of Libyans are similar to those that prompted people in Egypt and Tunisia to rebel. Many called for an end to corruption, bringing in democracy, and better use of oil revenues.
The protests in Libya drew a bloody response straightaway. Some tweets alleged that the personal security troops affiliated with Gaddafi’s sons were involved, and had fired upon demonstrators.
International rights organizations confirm that the regime was using live ammunition against the demonstrators.
According to local sources, the regime used mercenaries from African countries to disperse the protesters. Gaddafi, known for his eccentric ways, had in recent years assumed the title of “king of kings of Africa”.
Online posts by Libyan citizens say that the city of Derna in the east is “now free”, meaning it had no pro-Gaddafi troops by the end of Friday. Other posts in Arabic claimed that Derna citizens were heading to Benghazi to help the locals against the mercenaries.
On Thursday, Amnesty International urged the Libyan authorities “to stop using excessive force to suppress anti-government protests.”
The protests come even though the Libyan regime had taken measures to pre-empt the kind of protests that erupted in Egypt and Tunisia. Scores of activists were arrested, and citizens warned against joining protests. Security forces stepped up presence in the streets.
The government banned all press coverage of events, and arrested several reporters in the Mediterranean city Benghazi, which is witnessing some of the most violent clashes.
On Friday, Gaddafi’s government banned all access to the Al-Jazeera website.
“The Libyan authorities tried to smother this protest before it even got off the ground but that, clearly, did not work,” Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa said in a statement. “Now they are resorting to brutal means to punish and deter the protesters.”
The group urged the Libyan authorities to order an immediate investigation into the deadly attacks against the demonstrators.
Local reports suggest protesters took control of Al-Sehaba Square in Derna city, much as Cairo protesters took over Tahrir Square. They then took control of the whole city, the reports claim.
The government countered with pro-Gaddafi demonstrations. The official Libyan Jamahirya News Agency (JANA) (http://www.jananews.ly/Index.aspx?
Language=1) reported that thousands of Libyans marched in support of Gaddafi on Thursday and Friday. The agency published more than 40 reports suggesting that Gaddafi enjoys the backing of people around the country.
Gaddafi, who overthrew the monarchy in 1969 in a military coup when he was only 27, is the region’s longest-serving leader. He has ruled this nation of 6.5 million with an iron fist. Opponents have been executed, and others sent to life-terms in prison, human rights groups say.
Gaddafi forces study of his Green Book on school students, and has changed the names of calendar months to titles of his own making.
Libya, a mostly desert country, is oil rich. Oil and gas sales accounted for more than 95 percent of export earnings and an estimated 80 percent of fiscal revenues in 2008, according to the IMF.
The unrest may disrupt exports to European countries or push oil prices higher. Libya exports oil to Italy, Germany, France, and Spain. After lifting sanctions against Libya in 2004, the United States has also increased imports of Libyan oil.