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Protesters shake transitional government in Libya

Deputy chief resigns, others are suspended

People burned copies of Moammar Khadafy’s eccentric handbook at a protest demanding the National Transitional Council declare Islam the state religion in Benghazi, Libya.
People burned copies of Moammar Khadafy’s eccentric handbook at a protest demanding the National Transitional Council declare Islam the state religion in Benghazi, Libya. (Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters)

NEW YORK - Libya’s postwar transitional government faced a political crisis yesterday after protesters ransacked its offices in Benghazi, highlighting growing nationwide unease with its leadership and triggering a shakeup in which the government’s deputy chief resigned and several members were suspended.

For months, youth groups with a range of complaints have been protesting the National Transitional Council in Benghazi, the eastern city whose protests sparked the nine-month revolt and which once served as the rebel capital. Protests have cropped up elsewhere too, including Tripoli, the capital, where activists have erected a small tent city across from the prime minister’s office.

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Protesters complain that the transitional council’s operations are too opaque and that many of its members are tainted by past ties, real or suspected, with the regime of Moammar Khadafy.

On Saturday night, those frustrations boiled over when a crowd of mostly young men attacked the council’s offices in Benghazi, smashing windows and forcing their way inside the building while the council’s chairman, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, was inside.

The spark appeared to be the online release of a draft election law for the 200 members of a constituent assembly. Activists said it was prepared without consultation or public oversight, and that its winner-take-all rules would encourage Libyans to vote along tribal lines or for locally rich or prominent citizens and undercut those seeking to form new parties.

Seeking to contain the fallout from the incident, Abdel Hafedh Ghogha, the transitional council’s deputy chief, resigned yesterday, telling the Arabic satellite channel Al Jazeera: “My resignation is for the benefit of the nation and is required at this stage.’’

Speaking to reporters in Benghazi yesterday, Abdul-Jalil warned that continued protests could lead the country down a perilous path and pleaded with protesters to give the government more time to govern.

“We are going through a political movement that can take the country to a bottomless pit,’’ Reuters quoted him as saying. “There is something behind these protests that is not for the good of the country.’’

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“The people have not given the government enough time, and the government does not have enough money,’’ Abdul-Jalil said. “Maybe there are delays, but the government has only been working for two months. Give them a chance, at least two months.’’

The interim government also suspended several local members from Benghazi and announced it would form a council of religious figures to investigate government figures charged with corruption or ties to the former regime.

Both the incident itself and the leadership’s response were met with widespread anger in Benghazi, according to Salwa Bugaighis, a lawyer and political activist who was a leading figure in the Libyan uprising.

“We are worried,’’ she said. “We are afraid that maybe it becomes worse.’’

She said that protesters in Benghazi directed much of their rage at allegations that millions of dollars - and perhaps billions - in government money had gone unaccounted for.

“They want transparency. They want people from the Khadafy regime to go,’’ she said. “If there’s no transparency, everything will collapse.’’

Protests have taken place in Misurata as well, run by a rival leadership faction and where officials said they were planning to hold elections for a new local council in February without the blessing of the National Transitional Council. Critics of the interim government also complain that its performance has faltered on a nuts-and-bolts level.

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