Gunmen raid Libya cafes to stop unmarried couples socialising

Gunmen raid Libya cafes to stop unmarried couples socialising
Activists say recent raids on public businesses in Tripoli by armed groups show that militias still operate with impunity in Libya's capital.
3 min read
18 October, 2019
Local militias are used by Tripoli's GNA to maintain order in the city. [Getty]

Gunmen raided two trendy seafront cafes in Libya’s capital of Tripoli earlier this month to curb social freedom and impose a hardline interpretation of Islamic laws on visitors, witnesses said.

The gunmen attempted to banish unmarried coupies and impose a strict religious code, Reuters reported.

The identities of the men have not been confirmed, but the move reflects the rise of hardline Islamists and Salafists among militias that the authorities rely upon on to maintain order.

Both the cafes that were targeted are in the upscale Hay Aldalus neighbourhood, just west of central Tripoli.

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The raids have added a fresh layer of uncertainty to the city that is currently under assault by General Khalifa Haftar and his allies who aims to win power nationally.

Three Libyan children were killed in airstrikes in Tripoli.

A climate of fear

The raids are creating fresh uncertainty in a city that has faced a myriad of problems in recent years. 

“A group of armed men stormed the cafe with their guns and started questioning the men, to see if they were accompanied by a woman who was a close relative, or by a friend,” a witness told Reuters on condition of anonymity, speaking of the incident on Oct 6 at Eleanor café.

"Men who were sitting with (female) friends were taken out of the cafe by the armed group ... they took them into their vehicles for a couple of minutes then released them," the witness added. "The men came in again to pay the bills and left."

At the other cafe on the same stretch of seafront, more than 30 masked gunmen in military uniform earlier this month. They asked to see marriage certificates and told women they were to be accompanied by a brother or their husband. “I was very scared,” the witness said. “After five minutes the cafe was empty. Even the men left.”

The gunmen said they wanted the family sections of the cafes shut down. Designed for women and their relatives, these sections are also frequented by single women and couples.

“They said the next time, if we find something like this, we’re going to close it,” said the witness.

These threats have prompted at least two nearby cafes to post messages on Facebook saying they would no longer admit single men or unmarried couples, despite there being no law against such mixing in Libya.

A women’s rights activist said that the cafe raids showed that armed groups could still act with impunity in Tripoli.

They also reflected a backlash by religious radicals against the increasing presence of women in public spaces, she said. “They really want to push back women to their houses and to stop these social changes happening.”

Twitter users opposed to the raids launched the hashtag: “No to moral and religious guardianship, yes to a civilian state.”

The raids sparked criticism for against the Special Defence Force (SDF) on social media.The SDF is Tripoli’s most powerful Salafist-leaning group that labelled itself as the capital’s primary anti-crime and counter-terrorism force.

The SDF however denied its forces had stormed the cafes, while the other Salafist-leaning Nawasi brigade could not be reached for a comment.

Continued chaos

Libya has been mired in chaos since a NATO-backed uprising that toppled and killed dictator Moammar Gaddafi in 2011.

The Government of National Accord (GNA) is in control of Tripoli and uses these armed militias to maintain law and order, even though they operate largely autonomously.

General Haftar says he seeks to bring the militias under his control and rid western Libya of radical Islamists. However, his forces also include Salafists within their ranks.

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