Libya Protests Turn Violent as Flood Survivors Demand Accountability

People gathered outside the Al-Sahaba Mosque in Derna, Libya, to call for accountability for the disaster that took place there.
People gathered outside the Al-Sahaba Mosque in Derna, Libya, to call for accountability for the disaster that took place there.


People gathered to demand government accountability, while others marched up to the house of the mayor and started a fire.

As Derna grapples with extreme loss and grief after a deadly flood in the Libyan coastal city last week, many residents are calling for an international investigation into the disaster that killed thousands in an area where a Russia-backed warlord rules with an iron grip.

Hundreds of Libyans protested outside a mosque in Derna on Monday to demand government accountability for the deadly flood, while other demonstrators marched up to the house of the mayor, setting it on fire. Beyond frustrations over mismanagement and corruption in the lead-up to the storm, survivors in Derna also expressed anger about the lack of effective coordination by the government in its rescue and help effort.

“I want an investigation into the disaster and to know who’s responsible," said Taha Bubieda, a Libyan pilot and radio broadcaster in the city who lost 36 people in his extended family to the flooding.

Thousands of people have died and thousands more are missing after a Mediterranean storm hit Derna, triggering the overflow and collapse of two nearby dams last week. In the middle of the night, waves of water exploding from the dams swept away entire building blocks in the city’s downtown area and took families out to sea, some in their cars.

An exact death toll has been difficult to ascertain, with many bodies unidentified and efforts focused on helping survivors. Aid workers have been overwhelmed by the magnitude of the crisis, and Derna residents who are now homeless are still lacking basic food and supplies.

Social media in recent days has been filled with horrific scenes of the flooding’s aftermath, from collapsed buildings to broken roads and parts of bodies in the sea. Derna’s residents are also increasingly expressing their anger and frustration in public view, with bold calls for political change.

Many of them have come to view the flooding as a symbol of poor governance and corruption. The two dams that collapsed hadn’t been maintained in more than 20 years, despite the allocation of government funds for that purpose.

Bubieda and his friends had been helping organize volunteer efforts in the city in recent days, before he said residents began calling on him to organize a gathering. He and his friends drafted a list of demands and told people to gather on Monday at 5 p.m. local time at the Al-Sahaba Mosque Square to make their collective voice known. According to Bubieda and aid volunteers, the list of demands he authored was given to the local council and a military commander.

Videos and pictures of the demonstrations showed crowds of men climbing to the top of the mosque. “The thieves and traitors should hang," the crowds chanted.

One protester held up a poster that read, “The sad city of Derna demands the restoration of its rights."

Meanwhile, videos circulating on social media showed protesters at the house of Mayor Monem Al Guaith, tossing debris into a massive fire.

Some demonstrators at the mosque handed out paper versions of Bubieda’s statement, which called on the public prosecutor to investigate how the disaster happened and hold officials accountable. It also demanded the dissolution of the local council and for the construction of housing for survivors to begin immediately.

Separate, longer lists of demands by residents also circulated online. They called upon the United Nations as well as the fragmented government bodies of Libya to urge the country’s attorney general to expedite an investigation into the disaster. It couldn’t be determined who authored these lists.

One request called on the U.N. to open up an office in the city for this purpose. “We demand immediate and effective reconstruction of the city of Derna and compensation for the victims," read another demand.

Demonstrators for now don’t appear to be taking aim at Khalifa Haftar, the authoritarian leader of the military-ruled government in Libya’s eastern half who is supported by Russia and some Persian Gulf monarchies. Instead, they are focusing their anger at Libya’s eastern parliament based in Tobruk and its speaker Aguila Saleh. Last week, Saleh and other officials pushed back against accusations of corruption and mismanagement.

As protests grew bigger Monday evening, the prime minister of Libya’s eastern government announced that he had dismissed Derna’s municipal council and referred it for investigation.

Libya is a divided country with two authorities, including a U.N. recognized government controlling the city of Tripoli and much of the country’s west.

Authorities across the country keep close tabs on dissent, especially in the east, where Haftar’s militias command power. Even protests against Israel, a foe that Arab strongmen have traditionally allowed to be rhetorically pummeled in the public square, are banned.

Tarek Megerisi, a Libya expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that he was surprised to see the protests, which come as militias in the east have detained local aid workers, according to activists. “Haftar’s really been clamping down, with a lot of people being arrested," he said.

Time and again in Libyan history, the army has been brought in to restore a semblance of order after protests arise. Last year, Haftar deployed his soldiers after demonstrators stormed the eastern parliament building, setting it ablaze. “The cynic in me says we’ve seen this before. It all goes nowhere and people get scared and disband," said Megerisi.

Fakhry Alatrash, general counsel at Libya’s National Anti-Corruption Commission, a body appointed by the eastern parliament and based in Sabha, took part in the main demonstration at the mosque, which he estimated the crowd to number in the thousands. His commission is calling for the oversight of reconstruction efforts in Derna by an international authority as well as an investigation into the flood.

“We will not back down until those responsible for this disaster are held accountable," said Alatrash. “No one can trust a government that has put its people into this dilemma and caused the deaths of thousands of its people."

Survivors in Derna have also expressed anger about the way the government coordinated its response to the disaster.

“What we’re lacking most is management—families aren’t getting food and water because of bad management. It’s chaos," said Abdulrahman Sharif, a diver and finance lecturer at the University of Derna, who has been trying to gather a group of professional and amateur divers to help recover bodies from the sea.

On Friday, Sharif went out to a cliff to survey the scene.

“It was horrible—broken roots, pieces of bodies floating on the surface," he said. “It’s like we’re in a dream." He also visited the city’s seaport, where an official told him more than 800 bodies had been recovered in the vicinity alone.

Sharif immediately put out a call to the government for boats and protective suits, so his team could start their work. He said the equipment hasn’t come through yet.

Bubieda, the pilot who authored a list of demands, was in Benghazi at the time the storm hit. Only one of his cousins survived because he was able to go into the fourth floor of a building as the floodwater rose. He blamed the army for its poor response to the crisis, saying that soldiers had tried to stop him and other volunteers from conducting search and rescue operations in recent days.

“They’re working as if it’s a war," he said of the soldiers they encountered. “We told them please let us work, we know what we’re doing, but they say no, no, no, no."

Menna Farouk contributed to this article.

Write to Chao Deng at and Summer Said at

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