By Maha Ellawati.
Benghazi, 9 June:
A rally staged by gun-toting Islamists in Benghazi’s iconic Tahrir (Liberation) Square on Thursday has infuriated local residents.
The arrival of some 300 heavily-armed men in the seafront square outside the high court building, demanding the introduction of Sharia law in Libya, produced a rapid counter protest from residents of Benghazi who felt terrorized and intimidated by their presence. The Islamists had arrived in the square, seen as the cradle of the Libyan revolution, in a mass of 4X4 vehicles many with anti-aircraft guns mounted on them.
Claiming to belong to an organization called “Supporters of the Islamic Sharia”, they came from all over Libya, from as far away as Sabratha and Misrata, although most were said to be from the east of the country, notably Derna. They apparently intended to hold their first rally in the square.
Large numbers of Benghazi people including a number of women and civil society activists quickly headed to the square, waving the Libyan flag and chanting “Libya is one”, “No to radical ideas” and “Libya is not Afghanistan”. People demanded to know what exactly the Islamists thought they were doing in the square, why none of none was carrying the national flag, just the black flag and why they had come armed to the city.
Unlike Tripoli residents who have a reputation of being somewhat laid back, Benghazi people are not noted for tolerating threats or fools.
“We got rid of Qaddafi, we’ll get rid of you,” one Benghazi man was heard to tell the Islamists.
One of the organizers of this rally was Fathi Fituri who said that it was “in support of Islamic law. The goals behind it are to make people aware of these laws.” All Libyans, he said, were Muslims. “We do not have any Christians and Jews. We aim to enlighten and not to force the Islamic faith on anyone.”
Stating that the participants were mostly from eastern towns of Libya although there were participants from included, Sabratha, Misrata and Zliten, he claimed the reason for holding the rally was that “there are many young people who are oblivious [to the Sharia] and are using drugs, all sorts of pills and drink alcohol. We are sure that some people will speak negatively about us and condemn us, but our first and upmost aspiration is to apply Allah’s Laws, people in Benghazi must all be wondering as to who is behind this group”.
The Islamists were carrying banners stating that “Democracy is a Western system and is not Islamic”, “Democracy is atheistic” and “We will not accept a government that doesn’t govern in accordance with God’s will”
Fituri’s assessment about the way he and his colleagues would be greeted proved correct. By evening, protestors forced the Islamists and their armed vehicles to leave the square.
There was no violence, although security forces of the Ministry of Interior and the Supreme Security Committee were stationed in and around Tahrir Square in case fighting broke out.
The demonstration follows an attack two and a half weeks ago on Red Cross offices in Benghazi and an assault the previous day on the US consulate. A hitherto unknown Islamist group claimed responsibility. However, it is suspected that the claims were merely opportunist.