It has been reported that gunmen have raided two trendy seafront cafes in the Libyan capital of Tripoli this month to deter the free mixing of unmarried couples and impose strict religious social codes. According to Reuters, the identity of the assailants is unconfirmed, but the incident illustrates the latest example of the rise of Salafism in post-Gaddafi Libya which has alarmed civil society advocates as a setback for social reform.
“A group of armed men stormed the cafe [on 6 October) 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,” explained Eleanor, an eyewitness. Another witness, speaking on condition of anonymity, pointed out that: “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 men came in again to pay their bills and left.”
At another cafe on the same seafront stretch, more than 30 masked and armed men in military uniform swept in one morning earlier this month. They asked to see marriage certificates, telling women that they had to be accompanied by their husband or a brother. “I was very scared,” said a witness. “After five minutes the cafe was empty. Even the men left.” The gunmen also wanted the café’s family section, designated for women and their relatives or single women, to be shut down.
Both cafes targeted are in the upmarket Hay Andalus neighbourhood, to the west of central Tripoli. Twitter users opposed to the raids launched the hashtag “No to moral and religious guardianship, yes to a civilian state”. Some users mentioned that it was not a problem specific to Tripoli but has happened across Libya.
Salafism in Libya, specifically its Madkhali interpretation — named after Sheikh Rabee Al-Madkhali, a Saudi theologian whose followers adhere to an ultra-conservative but politically quietist ideology —has grown rapidly in Libya in recent years. Tolerated by Muammar Gaddafi prior to the 2011 uprising because of its political subservience and only a minor actor immediately after his regime’s fall, it has gained a wide following since the current conflict began in 2014 and has entrenched itself in key institutions. In Tripoli, Madkhali fighters are well-represented in major armed groups that have worked with the internationally-recognised Government of National Accord to bring security to the capital.