Gunmen raided trendy seafront cafes in Tripoli to banish unmarried couples and impose strict religious codes, witnesses said, a move alarming civil liberties defenders.
The identity of the armed men has not been confirmed, but the episode appears to reflect the rise of Islamist currents, including hard-line Salafism, in some powerful armed groups authorities rely on to keep order.
The raids, the latest of several incidents in eastern and western Libya to worry human rights advocates, add uncertainty to a city under assault by an eastern-based force aiming to win power nationally.
Both cafes targeted are in the upscale Hay Andalus neigbourhood, west of central Tripoli.
At one, Eleanor, “a group of armed men stormed the cafe with guns and started questioning men, to see if they were accompanied by a woman who was a close relative, or by a friend,” a witness said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
“Men sitting with female friends were taken out by the armed group. They took them into their vehicles for a couple of minutes then released them,” the witness said. “The men came in again to pay and left.”
At another cafe on the same seafront stretch, more than 30 masked, armed men in military uniform swept in one morning earlier this month, said a witness.
They asked to see marriage certificates, telling women they had to be accompanied by their husband or a brother. “I was scared,” the witness said. “After five minutes the cafe was empty. Even the men left.”
Gunmen wanted the family section of the cafe – designed for women and relatives and frequented by single women and couples – shut down.
“They said the next time, if we find something like this, we’re going to close it,” said the witness.
At least two other cafes put messages on Facebook saying they would no longer admit unmarried couples or single men, despite there being no law against it.
On social media the raids sparked criticism against the Special Defence Force (SDF), Tripoli’s most powerful Salafist-leaning group, which models itself as the capital’s primary anti-crime and counter-terrorism force.
An SDF spokesman denied the force stormed cafes in Hay Andalus. The Nawasi brigade, another armed group, also Salafist leaning, could not be reached for comment.
The armed groups are among several which patrol Tripoli at the behest of Libya’s internationally-recognised government, based in the capital and competes with eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar for national control.
Tripoli’s armed groups are nominally under the interior ministry but retain wide autonomy.
The groups help defend the city from a six-month-old assault by Haftar, who seeks to bring Tripoli’s militias to heel and rid western Libya of radical Islamists. Haftar’s forces include Salafists.
The cafe raids show armed groups still act with impunity , said a women’s rights activist, who asked not to be named for fear her comments would be politicised.
They also reflect a backlash by religious radicals against an increasing presence of women in public spaces, she said. “They want to push women back to their houses and to stop social change.”
Twitter users opposed to the raids launched the hashtag: “No to moral and religious guardianship, yes to a civilian state.”