Hundreds of Libyan pro-democracy advocates marched in Tripoli on Friday, denouncing militias' recent blockade of government buildings and coming under attack briefly by supporters of the armed groups, in the latest sign of the turmoil that threatens the country's first elected authorities.
Raising banners that read "No democracy with force," the protesters marched on the capital's Algeria Square and Martyrs' Square but were attacked by counterdemonstrators who tore their placards and forced them back, witnesses said. Protesters then marched to the headquarters of the Cabinet to voice support for the government.
"They beat us up with the sticks of the placards and chased us away," Mohammed al-Kirkari, an activist who was in the march told the local al-Ahrar TV network.
In the eastern city of Benghazi, vocal anti-militia activist and leading rights lawyer Fathi Terbal said he received death threats and was forced to read out a statement in support of the militias' moves.
Terbal had been at the forefront of the 2011 popular uprising against Moammar Gadhafi's rule, which descended into civil war and ended with the dictator's death eight months later.
"What is happening now aborts the principles of the revolution," he said. "Going out today is a national duty for all Libyans ... if you don't (demonstrate) today, we will all pay the price," he said, adding that he and other activists were attacked on Thursday while meeting in a Benghazi hotel to organize protests.
Libya's elected government and parliament depend on militias — initially formed of former rebels who fought Gadhafi's forces — to maintain security given the absence of a unified police and military since Gadhafi's fall. However, the militias have mushroomed in numbers, loyalties and agendas.
The latest showdown with the government is rooted in a struggle among the country's biggest political blocs over a contentious bill dubbed the "Isolation Law." If passed, it would effectively dismiss many of Libya's current leaders for the mere fact that they had served under Gadhafi decades ago, regardless of their role during the uprising. The law in it is initial form would have ousted the current head of Congress, Mohammed al-Megarif, Prime Minister Ali Zidan, and the liberal-leaning politician Mahmoud Jibril. Jibril leads National Forces Alliance, which enjoys the largest number of seats for a signal bloc.
Over the past six days militias — some of which are suspected to be backed by rivals of the NFA bloc in parliament — have encircled the foreign and justice ministries and stormed the interior ministry and state-TV in Tripoli. They have a variety of demands, one of which is for parliament to pass the law.
Lawmakers said earlier that parliament, which suspended its sessions on Tuesday after militias' takeover, will meet on Sunday to pass the law.
One version of the law posted on the parliament's Facebook page allows some figures to be exempted from the ban, if they are supported by two thirds of parliament. However, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, the Freedom and Construction party, said earlier that there would be no exceptions.
Tripoli's showdown between supporters and detractors of the militias recall mass protests that erupted in Benghazi last year after militants killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens three other Americans there. An extremist militia called Ansar al-Shariah was suspected of being behind the attack. Thousands of Benghazi residents marched the streets calling for the disbanding of the militias and the formation of a unified army and police. Those demonstrators took control of the headquarters of Ansar Shariah's militias.