ALGIERS, Feb 16 (Reuters) - Several hundred people clashed overnight with police and government supporters in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, a witness and local media said.
Rioting is unusual in oil exporter Libya, where Muammar Gaddafi, Africa’s longest-serving leader, keeps a tight grip on political life.
IS THIS THE START OF AN EGYPT-STYLE REVOLT?
Libya’s neighbours to the east and west have each seen entrenched heads of state forced out by popular uprisings in the past few weeks. That has inspired attempts by exiled members of the opposition to organise protests via online social networking sites, and it has prompted the government to take pre-emptive measures, including reducing food prices.
But most analysts say Libya is unlikely to see an uprising along the lines of Tunisia or Egypt. The government has huge amounts of oil cash which it can use to placate unhappy citizens. Libyan society and public life is built around family and tribal ties, so if there is any challenge to Gaddafi’s rule, it is likely to happen behind the scenes and not in the streets.
Benghazi is not typical of the rest of Libya. The crucial test for Gaddafi now is whether the unrest spreads beyond Benghazi to the capital and the west of the country.
People in Benghazi have a history of anatagonism with Gaddafi. Many of them did not support him when he came to power in a military coup in 1969, and since then the region has been cut out of much of the largesse handed out by the government from oil revenues, deepening the resentment. When dozens of prisoners accused of membership of a banned Islamist militant group were released last year from Abu Salim, most of them headed east to Benghazi, where their families live.
The issue of Abu Salim prison appears to have helped trigger the rioting. Benghazi’s Quryna newspaper said the protesters had relatives inside the prison. A witness said they were relatives of inmates killed at the prison in June 1996, when more than 1,000 prisoners were shot dead. Either way, Abu Salim is a touch-paper issue, especially for the people of Benghazi.
In the past, the Libyan leader has shown himself to be a wily political operator and a master tactician. That explains in large part why he has been able to stay in power for so long. One of his favoured tactics has traditionally been to position himself at the head of popular movements and to portray himself as the champion of the ordinary man and woman. Pro-government protests which Libyan state television said were taking place around the country appeared to be a part of that. Libyan media reports said Gaddafi on Wednesday would appear at a ceremony in Tripoli to open a new stadium for the Al-Ahly soccer club. The club can mobilise thousands of supporters, and this may be an opportunity for Gaddafi to underscore his popularity. The next few days should show if he retains his mastery of the public mood. (Editing by Janet Lawrence)