A Libyan protester holds a croissant (la brioche) at a demonstration in Martyrs Square in central Tripoli, Libya. Picture: REUTERS/AHMED JADALLAH
A Libyan protester holds a croissant (la brioche) at a demonstration in Martyrs Square in central Tripoli, Libya. Picture: REUTERS/AHMED JADALLAH

Tripolo — Coffee and a pastry covered in chocolate, honey and almonds — or a savoury bean stew sandwich with juice or a fizzy drink?

What you have for breakfast has come to symbolise the divisions in Libya where regions, tribes, armed groups and towns with different traditions have been vying for power since Muammar Gaddafi was toppled in 2011.

An assault by eastern forces allied to Khalifa Haftar on Tripoli last month has all but wrecked UN-backed efforts for a peace deal between the rival factions.

And the breakfast choice has become part of the language of the conflict and such an inflammatory subject that several cafés in Tripoli would not allow Reuters to discuss it with clients.

The capital’s urban elites love a pastry called baryoush — some people say the word is related to brioche which the Italian colonial rulers introduced with coffee and cappuccinos.

The cosmopolitan crowd looks down on the bean dish called fasouliyah, favoured by easterners. It is sometimes served with egg and is similar to breakfast dishes in other Arab countries.

“Baryoush stands for Tripoli, for sophisticated life”, says Tripoli accountant Mohamad Salah. “We are urban; in the east, tribes dominate, their cloth is different.”

The easterners refer to the Tripoli residents as baryoush or urban softies who are poor fighters.

“I visit Tripoli regularly for work ... When we discuss politics and someone feels he is losing the argument he starts provoking me with fasouliya,” says Omar al-Zaiyani, a resident of the eastern city of Benghazi. “I often hit back using baryoush."

At an anti-Haftar rally last month in Tripoli, several protesters waved croissants in the air as they chanted. One protestor, university lecturer Abdulmalik Essofrani, says the baryoush showed that locals were “sophisticated, café-goers ... strong and united in their resolve to fight and drive back the attacking force”.

A spokesperson for Haftar’s Libyan National army mocked the demonstrators in a news conference afterwards. “A baryoush. Is that now the most important thing?” Ahmed Mismari said, describing the person distributing the pastries as a “terrorist”.

The easterners also complain that the reference reminds them of the years of Gaddafi, who they say created jobs in the west but punished the east for dissent with neglect.

Mary Fitzgerald, who has researched Libya since 2011, says although it is a tongue-in-cheek issue, it symbolises the battle lines in the conflict. “It reflects how the polarisation caused by years of conflict has deepened ideas of identity along city or regional lines.” 

Reuters