Riots in flood-hit Derna reveal fury at decades of neglect that led to disaster

Foreign diplomats had warned that Libya's rival governments were not doing enough to help the city, where long-neglected dams collapsed on September 8

Protests against Libya's rival governments outside Al Sahaba Mosque in Derna. Reuters
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Riots have erupted in the Libyan city of Derna with locals setting the mayor's house on fire following catastrophic flooding last week that left thousands dead.

Protesters took to the city's streets in the first major demonstration since the flooding, angry that dams, which collapsed, were not repaired despite clear warnings. Many in the city and across the country see the flooding as part of what is a pattern of corruption and incompetence that has stalked Libya for decades. They are unlikely to be reassured by a decision by the authorities to order journalists covering the rescue missions to leave the town.

The order, issued on Tuesday by the interior minister of the eastern government in Tobruk, Essam Abu Zriba, said the expulsion was to help rescue work. “The large number of journalists has become an impediment to the work of rescue teams,” he told Reuters.

Stability has proved elusive in Libya ever since the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in the 2011 revolution. Corrupt and ineffective transitional governments have followed, one after the other, each failing to tame the chaos.

Billions of dollars of oil revenue are unaccounted for, while the country is divided between two governments at opposite ends of the country.

Popular discontent with Libya's chaotic administration saw rioting across the country in July last year, with protesters at the time setting fire to the parliament in the eastern town of Tobruk. Former UN envoy Stephanie Williams warned after those riots that the country’s elites should not ignore public anger, tweeting: “These protests are a clarion call for the political class to put their differences aside and hold the elections the Libyan people want.”

But a year later, there is no sign of either regime agreeing to a vote. A bleak picture of Libya was painted in last year’s report by the Panel of Experts, appointed by the UN Security Council.

The report portrayed a violent chaotic country in which modern slavery continues and terrorist groups are flourishing. It condemned ‘dysfunctional practices’ at the Libyan Central Bank over accounting for finances, and complained of a political ‘tug of war regarding influence over the country’s oil sector.’

Rival governments

The World Bank’s most recent Libya report, from last September, warned: “Libya finds itself again with two parallel governments in the East and West, with negative implications for policymaking, economic recovery, and security.”

Derna has suffered more than most in Libya from the years of chaos. In 2014, ISIS seized power. Its black flags were hoisted in the streets and death squads executed dozens of notable citizens in the town’s football stadium.

A year later, ISIS was overthrown by a militant resistance group, the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna. A year later, the Shura Council Council was overcome and the town was captured by Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army. In 2020, the country’s six-year civil war ended. But peace has brought little prosperity. Elections planned for December 2021 were abandoned days before they were due to be held, and Libya’s ruling elites have shown little enthusiasm to hold new ones.

Instead, the administrative chaos that stalks the country produces regular power cuts, water cuts, and shortages of medicine and foodstuffs. The EU, alarmed by low inspection standards at Libyan airports, refuses to allow Libyan planes into its airspace.

These problems have come into sharp relief with the disastrous flooding that has claimed more than 11,000 lives. Libyan emergency services are underfunded and badly organised, so much so that rescue has depended on outside nations flying crews in.

The flood catastrophe was caused by the collapse of a dam, constructed in the 1970s. No repairs were made to the dam despite an authoritative report published last year warning it needed urgent action.

Libya’s Attorney General Al Siddiq Al Sour made a personal visit to Derna last week and is investigating the reason no repairs were made. But for many across the country, the dam collapse is part of a wider problem beyond the power of a single law officer to fix.

Updated: September 20, 2023, 7:38 AM