Libya's rival leaders are under growing pressure after protesters stormed parliament, as anger exploded over deteriorating living conditions and political deadlock.
Talks between rival administrations in Tobruk and Tripoli have broken down and the country faces a sharp economic contraction as major oil export terminals remain blockaded by protesters. The state National Oil Company said last week that exports had fallen by 865,000 barrels per day.
The country is still trying to recover from a major conflict between forces from the Tripoli government and troops led by Benghazi-based Gen Khalifa Haftar, as well as militias within Tripoli which have clashed over the control of vital infrastructure.
Covid-19 worsened the country's economic decline as oil demand across the globe plummeted, denying the war-torn country its main source of revenue.
Libya has been mired in chaos and repeated rounds of conflict since a Nato-backed uprising toppled and killed dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
Tobruk parliament attacked
Protesters stormed the seat of the House of Representatives in the eastern city of Tobruk on Friday night, ransacking its offices and torching part of the building.
In both the main eastern city of Benghazi, centre of the 2011 uprising, and the capital Tripoli, thousands took to the streets to chants of “We want the lights to work”.
Some brandished the green flags of the former Qaddafi regime.
Calm appeared to have returned to Tobruk on Saturday, though there were calls on social media for more protests in the evening.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on “all actors to refrain from any actions that could undermine stability”, urging them “to come together to overcome the continued political deadlock”, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement.
UN-mediated talks in Geneva this week aimed at breaking the stalemate between rival Libyan institutions failed to resolve key differences.
Presidential and parliamentary elections, originally set for December last year, were meant to cap a UN-led peace process following the end of the last major round of violence in 2020.
But voting never took place due to several contentious candidacies and deep disagreements over the polls' legal basis between the rival power centres.
In Tripoli on Friday, hundreds came out to demand elections, fresh political leadership and an end to the chronic power cuts.
The sudden eruption of unrest appeared to be spreading to other areas of the country, with Libyan media showing images of protesters in the oasis city of Sebha, deep in the Sahara desert, torching an official building.
A local journalist said protesters in Libya's third city Misurata were blocking roads after setting fire to a municipal building on Friday night.
After dark, protesters also gathered at several points in Tripoli, shutting down some roads and burning tyres, according to images broadcast by local media.
Interim prime minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibah leads a Tripoli-based administration while former interior minister Fathi Bashagha draws support from the Tobruk-based House of Representatives and eastern military Gen Haftar.
Gen Haftar's forces said on Saturday that they “support the citizens' demands” but called for protesters to “preserve public property”.
Libya's energy sector, which during the Qaddafi era financed a generous welfare state, has fallen victim to political divisions, with a wave of forced closures of oil facilities since April.
Supporters of the eastern-based administration have shut off the oil taps as leverage in their efforts to secure a transfer of power to Mr Bashagha, whose attempt to take up office in Tripoli in May ended in a swift withdrawal.
The European Union's envoy to Libya, Jose Sabadell, said Friday's events “confirm people want change through elections”.
But he urged peaceful protests, adding that “special restraint is necessary given the fragile situation”.
US ambassador to Libya Richard Norland said that “no single political entity enjoys legitimate control across the entire country and any effort to impose a unilateral solution will result in violence”.
He urged Libya's “political leaders across the spectrum and their foreign backers to seize the moment to restore the confidence of their citizens in the country's future”.