Libyan leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil said on Sunday the nation would fall into a “civil war” if the ruling National Transitional Council resigned, as it faced its first major challenge with protests raging in Benghazi.
Angry protests in the eastern city of Benghazi -- the city which first rebelled against Muammar Qaddafi last year -- have dealt a severe blow to the NTC’s functioning. It led its deputy head Abdel Hafiz Ghoga to resign on Sunday, three days after furious students had manhandled him.
“We are not going to resign because it would lead to civil war,” NTC head Abdul Jalil said in an interview on the Libya al-Hurra television station late Sunday.
Abdul Jalil said some “hidden hands” were “pushing the demonstrators.”
“Who is pushing these sit-ins prompting protesters to invade the headquarters of the council with such savagery?” the new Libya’s leader said, referring to the attack on NTC offices in Benghazi Saturday, according to AFP.
Crowds of protesters threw several home-made grenades at and stormed the NTC offices with iron rods and stones before setting the building’s front ablaze, witnesses and council members said.
They even threw plastic bottles at Abdul Jalil, who is respected across Libya for his active role in the anti-Qaddafi rebellion. He had to be escorted out of the premises.
Benghazi protesters rampaged through the NTC’s offices, denouncing what they said is a “non-transparent” body. The protesters also accused the NTC of having marginalized some wounded veterans of the uprising that toppled Qaddafi in favor of people who were previously loyal to the slain dictator.
Defending the NTC and its work, Abdul Jalil paid tribute to Ghoga, despite the fury of the protesters.
“We must praise the role played by Abdel Hafiz Ghoga. He chose his country before himself,” Abdul Jalil said. His onetime deputy had supported the anti-Qaddafi revolution when others “were in Egypt or hidden elsewhere.”
Ghoga stepped down Sunday after about 4,000 students protested against him in Benghazi’s University of Ghar Yunis where he was manhandled on Thursday and had to flee from the campus to escape the angry mob.
Ghoga, who served as official spokesman for the NTC, had come under increasing opposition from Benghazi residents who accuse him of opportunism because of what they said was his belated defection from the Qaddafi regime.
“My resignation shows that the NTC is a tribune for fighting for a cause and not a governing body,” Ghoga told AFP.
“We are not looking for posts,” he said, adding that his decision was in the “best interests of Libya.”
He said “since the end of the war of liberation an air of hatred had begun to dominate which does not serve national interest.”
“To prove that we are with the interest (of Libya) and that we are a movement of struggle, we decided to give way to other patriots... the important thing is to preserve the NTC... we do not want our country sliding into chaos.”
The NTC had staunchly backed Ghoga after the Ghar Yunis incident, saying an attack on him represented “an attack on the sovereignty of the Libyan people and its glorious revolution.”
Protesters say the NTC has failed to live up to the aspirations of the revolt against Gaddafi, the most violent of the “Arab Spring” uprisings.
“We hoped for security, peace and transparency. We have seen the opposite,” said Miftah al-Rabia, 28, who was standing outside the NTC’s Benghazi headquarters on Sunday with a group of protesters, according to Reuters.
The violent protests against the NTC and Ghoga in particular even forced the council to meet at an undisclosed location on Sunday to discuss the nation’s new electoral law.
NTC member Abdul Razzak al-Arabi told AFP that the meeting had postponed the adoption of the law to Jan. 28. It was expected to scrap an article reserving 10 percent of the seats of the proposed 200-member constituent assembly for women, he added.
Several women’s bodies and rights groups had criticized the article, saying it does not go far enough in giving women a say in post-Qaddafi politics.
Arabi said the NTC had set up an election commission comprising 17 members, including lawyers, judges and human rights activists, to oversee future polls.
Abdul Jalil, meanwhile, said despite the protests he was “optimistic” about the future of Libya.
“Libya will see prosperity as she has not seen before. But we need help and support” from the people, he said.
The protests add to the list of challenges facing the NTC.
It is struggling to bring to heel dozens of armed militias who have carved the country into rival fiefdoms and are so far refusing to join a newly created national army.
Foreign states are worried about the NTC’s capacity to secure its borders against arms traffickers, al-Qaeda insurgents and migrants trying to reach Europe illegally.
The NTC was formed in the early days of the revolt against Qaddafi from a hastily-assembled group of lawyers, government officials who defected, Muslim clerics, tribal leaders and civil society activists.
At the time, Qaddafi’s troops were using automatic weapons to fire on protests in Benghazi and elsewhere, and there was little time to vet the members.
But nearly six months on from the moment the rebellion took control of the capital Tripoli, Libyans are started to question the counci’s legitimacy.
In particular, some people have cast doubt over the loyalties of former Qaddafi lieutenants who are now in the NTC. These include Abdul Jalil himself, who was justice minister under Qaddafi before defecting early in the uprising.
The council says it will dissolve itself once elections are held for a transitional national assembly. That vote is scheduled to take place in about six months.
“We still don't know who exactly is in the NTC. There is no transparency,” said Al-Rabia, a protester standing outside the building with a group of about 30 other men.
Another protester, 24-year-old Mohammed Mahmoud, said he fought against Qaddafi during the revolt and wounded his shoulder and hand.
“We fought on the front line and received injuries but we did not see the NTC with us,” he said. “I have one single question: Why has the NTC failed at everything except selling oil? We want to correct the path of the revolution.”