Hundreds protest against Libyan authorities in flood-ravaged Derna

CNN/ Newswire | 9/19/2023, 10:12 a.m.
Protests have erupted in the eastern Libyan city of Derna with locals demanding the removal of those in power, a ...
People who survived the deadly floods protest outside the Sahaba Mosque in Derna on September 18. Mandatory Credit: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Originally Published: 19 SEP 23 07:47 ET

Updated: 19 SEP 23 09:44 ET

By Celine Alkhaldi and Christian Edwards, CNN

(CNN) — Protests have erupted in the eastern Libyan city of Derna with locals demanding the removal of those in power, a week after torrential rain caused two dams to collapse, sweeping whole neighborhoods into the Mediterranean Sea and killing thousands.

Demonstrators vented their anger at officials, including the speaker of the eastern-based Libyan parliament, Aguila Saleh, outside the Sahaba Mosque. Videos circulating on social media showed protesters climbing onto the golden dome of the Sahaba Mosque, a Derna landmark, chanting anti-government slogans and singing: “Oh my homeland… We will stay here until the pain goes away.”

A week on from the catastrophic flooding, and as the immediate search for survivors begins to wind down, the citizens of Derna are confronting fresh horrors, from outbreaks of waterborne diseases to landmines displaced by the rains.

Monday’s protests marked the first large demonstrations since the flood, as citizens attempt to hold leaders across the divided country accountable for the bursting of the dams that some feel could have been avoided.

The full scale of the disaster is not yet clear, with thousands of people still missing. While officials have given hugely different death tolls, the United Nations has confirmed at least 3,985 deaths.

Later in the evening, protesters set fire to the house of the man who was Derna’s mayor at the time of the flood, Abdulmenam al-Ghaithi, his office manager told Reuters.

Hichem Abu Chkiouat, a minister in the eastern Libyan government, said Gaithi had been suspended from his post. Reuters could not immediately reach Ghaiti for comment.

The outpourings of anger may swell beyond Derna. Some protesters outside the Sahaba Mosque called on the “people of Benghazi,” Libya’s second largest city, to “come out and join in protest.”

Much of the anger was directed towards Saleh, speaker of the eastern-based Libyan parliament, after he attempted to deflect blame for the disaster from authorities who oversaw the city’s infrastructure.

“The disaster that struck the country is a natural one… It is in God’s hand,” Saleh told a parliamentary session on Thursday, urging Libyans not to “exchange accusations” over who is responsible for it.

Saleh also called for a “comprehensive investigation to hold those who were negligent accountable.”

However, some Libyans have demanded that the investigation into what caused the two dams to collapse be carried out by international organizations, due to a lack of trust in local authorities which have been accused of failing to prevent the breach.

In a paper published last year, Abdelwanees Ashoor, a hydraulic engineer at Omar Al-Mukhtar University in Libya, warned that the Derna “area has a high potential for flood risk,” and that the dams “needed periodic maintenance” to prevent disaster.

“We just ask that if there will be any rebuilding efforts that no Libyan company be ever involved,” Mohammed Ben Hamad, who was present at the protest Monday, told Reuters.

“This is because everyone in Derna – from the head of the municipality to all of the officials – are corrupt. Derna should either be left as it is, or a foreign company should be involved. The souls of the martyrs will not be in vain,” he said.

Libya’s vulnerability to extreme weather is increased by its long-running political conflict, which has seen a decade-long power struggle between two rival administrations.

The UN-backed Government of National Unity (GNU), led by Abdulhamid Dbeibeh, sits in Tripoli in northwest Libya, while its eastern rival is controlled by commander Khalifa Haftar and his Libyan National Army (LNA), who support the eastern-based parliament led by Osama Hamad.

Derna, which lies some 300 kilometers (190 miles) east of Benghazi, falls under the control of Haftar and his eastern administration.