Libya Flood: Protester Anger Could Lead To Crackdown

Despite public calls for accountability after the deadly flood in Derna, observers have little hope that the military-backed government will do anything more than secure its power.

Libyans in the devastated city of Derna have started taking to the streets. On Monday afternoon, thousands started calling for accountability and expressed their fury over what they deem poor handling by regional authorities after a flood killed thousands on September 11.

For hours, the demonstrators chanted “Aguila, we don’t want you! All Libyans are brothers!” at the central Sahaba Square in Derna, singling out Aguila Saleh, the speaker of Libya’s eastern-based parliament.

The protesters demanded compensation and that international groups oversee the reconstruction of the devastated city.

“There is a lot of anger toward the [eastern] parliament as it took them four days to meet and then, the speaker actually harangued Libyans for daring to blame politicians and to dare question why this happened,” Tarek Megerisi, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW.

Last week, Saleh had said the flood was an “act of God” and that politicians were not to blame for it.

But several trustworthy reports have long confirmed that the dams hadn’t been maintained for years.

In 2022, Abdelwanees Ashoor, a civil engineering professor, wrote in an article for the Sabha University Journal of Pure and Applied Sciences that “in the event of a big flood, the consequences will be disastrous for the residents of the valley and the city.”

Destruction in Libya. Photo: X/@RedCross

This is exactly what happened on September 11 after torrential rains caused the collapse of two dams just outside Derna. The resulting flood destroyed a quarter of the coastal city and killed nearly 4,000 people, according to the latest UN figures. Another 10,000 still remain missing.

While international helpers continue to search for bodies, health organizations are now warning that unearthed land mines pose a new threat, and that diseases such as cholera are spreading.

‘Little sign that there will be any accountability’

The prosecutor of Libya’s eastern administration has launched an investigation and suspended Derna’s mayor, Abdel Moneim al-Gaithi.

Observers, though, don’t attribute much meaning to this move, as the administration is known for its thriving nepotism. “And al-Gaithi is a relative of the speaker of the parliament, Aguila Saleh,” said Megerisi.

Sami Hamdi, managing director of the London-based risk and intelligence company The International Interest, also believes “there is little sign that there will be any accountability.”

This lack of trust in public institutions could have driven an act of self-justice by demonstrators on Monday night, as a group of people set the mayor’s house, as reported by the news agency Reuters.

Another reason could have been the decision by the eastern parliament to have a new fund for Derna’s reconstruction handled by the disputed parliament speaker, the suspended mayor and Saddam Haftar, the son of the military strongman General Khalifa Haftar.

According to human rights organisation Amnesty International, forces under Saddam Haftar have been responsible for a “catalogue of horrors” against Libyan civilians since 2016.

Furthermore, those three men have already been responsible for a previous reconstruction fund. “They were in charge of the fund to reconstruct Derna after General Haftar’s siege and resulting war against the people in Derna which ended up killing, displacing or imprisoning a quarter of Derna’s population in 2018 and 2019,” Megerisi said.

That very fund, however, disappeared with nothing to show for it, he added.

This view is confirmed by the then-head of the UN Support Mission in Libya, Ghassan Salame, who concluded in 2018 that “individual predatory agendas […] continue to dominate at the expense of the collective good.”

The years since haven’t brought any improvement in this regard.

In 2022, the global nongovernmental organization Transparency International ranked Libya 171 of 180 countries in its Corruption Perceptions Index.

Observers expect crackdown on protesters

With Derna under the administration of Prime Minister Ossama Hamad, who is backed by the powerful General Haftar — a man known for mercilessly cracking down on dissent — observers have no hope protesters’ demands will be taken into political consideration.

“The popular opinion is not considered of particular importance among the militias or political factions,” Hamdi told DW. “There is a consensus among the political factions that they are all collectively unpopular among the Libyans and the Libyan electorate.”

If the protests continue, however, observers haven’t ruled out a violent crackdown on demonstrators.

“Politicians and elites are very aware of the growing anger and are already pushing back,” said Megerisi. “This comes in the form of internal security agencies on the ground.”

Wolfram Lacher, researcher at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, wrote Monday on X, formerly known as Twitter, that an interview was cut off by security forces after a person criticized Derna’s mayor and parliamentary speaker Saleh.

Meanwhile, the latest reports have now even pointed to the expulsion of reporters on the ground. Libyan journalist Mohammed Elgrj tweeted on Tuesday that the government had issued an order to “evacuate the journalistic teams from the city of Derna!”

Libya researcher Megerisi has no hope that the people’s anger could lead to a fruitful collaboration between the rival governments, or even an end to the country’s political rift. Since 2014, Libya has been practically divided into two sections — east and west — with the internationally recognized UN-brokered Government of National Unity based in the western city of Tripoli, and the eastern administration and Haftar’s Libyan National Army based in Tobruk.

“If there’s one thing that Haftar and Libyan politicians are good at, it is suppressing anger, suppressing rage, locking up people for daring to protest and express themselves and riding out political storms,” he said.

This article was originally published on DW.