By Andrew England in Cairo
Published: February 18 2011 10:32 | Last updated: February 18 2011 22:31
For more than 40 years, Muammer Gaddafi, Libyaâ€™s eccentric leader, has ruled his oil-rich north African state with a tight grip and his own peculiar brand of socialism and Islamism.
He has claimed that Libyans are their own masters in a system of governance he calls a Jamahiriya, or peopleâ€™s republic. ButÂ criticism has not been tolerated and, now, like other Arab leaders, he is facing a wave of popularÂ unrest that has little precedent. Â
On Friday, thousands of Libyans defied a violent government crackdown, which has killed more than 20 people, to keep up protests against his regime, in what activists say is the worst unrest to hit Libya for years.
In Benghazi, the countryâ€™s second city, thousands of people, including lawyers and judges, defiantly camped out overnight by a courthouse before clashes erupted in the city for the fourth day running.Â
Skirmishes between security forces and protesters were also reported around nearby al-Bayda and other towns in the east, which has been a stronghold for opposition against Col Gaddafi.
Opposition figures and activists said the unrest was spreading to other towns and put the death toll higher, but so far Tripoli, the capital, appears to have avoided anti-regime demonstrations. Information is tightly controlled in Libya and it was impossible to verify the extent of the protests or casualty figures.
Human Rights Watch, a New York-based organisation, said at least 24 people were killed after security forces used live fire in a bid to disperse demonstrators on Thursday, which activists had dubbed a â€œday of angerâ€ , emulating the uprisings that swept from power the presidents of neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt.
Amnesty International has accused the Libyan authorities of recklessly shooting at anti-government protesters after the organisation learnt that at least 46 people had been shot dead by security forces in the past 72 hours.
Col Gaddafi, who seized power in 1969 and is the Arab worldâ€™s longest-serving ruler, appears to be responding with the tactics used by Tunisiaâ€™s Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptâ€™s Hosni Mubarak â€“ deploying security forces to crack down on activists, mobilising loyalists to march in counter demonstrations and reportedly offering to double public sector salaries.
On Thursday, he drove through a crowd of flag-waving loyalists in Tripoli, with the images broadcast on Libyan television.
Activists say the pro-regime demonstrators were brought in by bus and paid to take part.
The country had been gradually opening up after years of isolation under sanctions. But dissent is quashed, political parties are banned and public protests are rare. Revolutionary committees, which have their own militias, keep control of towns and villages across the country.
There have been reports that revolutionary committee offices have been burnt down during the protests.
Despite being home to Africaâ€™s largest proven oil reserves, Libya suffers from many of the ills of its neighbours, particularly rampant unemployment which is estimated to be at least 30Â per cent.
A critical issue is whether the protesters can sustain their momentum in a large country that has a scattered population of just 6m.
â€œIf there is sufficient Âcollaboration among the protesters in different parts of the country they could start some momentum, but if not it may die down,â€ said Oliver Miles, a former British ambassador to Libya.
Ashour Shamis, a London-based government critic, said the size and nature of the protests were new.
â€œThereâ€™s a schism between the regime and the people and in the past you could not talk about it openly. Now you can feel thereâ€™s a very strong trend of opposition inside the country.
The demonstrations began on Tuesday after the authorities detained a prominent lawyer who was also a spokesman for the families of prisoners who were killed in a 1996 shooting in Tripoliâ€™s notorious Abu Salim prison. Activists used Facebook to call for mass rallies on Thursday to mark the February 2006 death of a dozen demonstrators during a protest against the Danish cartoon depicting the prophet Mohamed.
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