Christian Caryl

Islands in the Desert

Islands in the Desert

MISRATA, Libya — By all rights, Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, ought to be a mess. The late Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi considered the place to be a hotbed of resistance during the 2011 revolution, and his troops pounded it with everything they had (including Scud missiles). The resulting levels of destruction prompted some foreign reporters to evoke the battle of Stalingrad. Two years later, Libya as a whole is still trying to recover from the chaos of the civil war. A stuttering economy, fractious militias, and a weak central government certainly aren’t helping.

Yet today’s Misrata offers a remarkable study in resilience. Much of the wartime devastation has already been cleaned up — and even where it hasn’t, spiffy new shops thrive on the ground floors of buildings whose upper stories are still burnt-out facades. The downtown area is humming with commerce. Traffic jams are frequent. And the militias that earned the city so much fame during the war are nowhere to be seen. Checkpoints are non-existent; the only armed men to be seen on the streets wear the uniforms of the Libyan police. (The eagle in the photo above stands in front of Misrata’s war museum, which commemorates the fighting of 2011.)

Before the revolution, Misratans say, their affairs were micro-managed by the central government in Tripoli. The collapse of the Qaddafi regime put an end to that. Today, Misrata boasts an elected government that emerged directly from the 2011 turmoil and now manages the city’s affairs with a substantial degree of independence. Ismael Shaklawon, the head of the Local Council, takes care to stress that Misrata’s municipal government still recognizes the primacy of Tripoli. Nonetheless, he spends much of his time railing about the fecklessness of the capital’s politicians and officials. It’s been months, he says, since Tripoli sent any of the funds allocated to the city budget — the city’s only official source of funding. "Give us the power to get things done," he says. "Without independence in finance you can’t get anything done."

Still, one can hardly accuse Misratans of waiting for a green light from Tripoli before pushing ahead with revitalizing their city. On many fronts, they are exploiting their newfound freedoms to the full — and the results offer an object lesson in both the opportunities and the risks of the wide-ranging autonomy that Libya’s revolution has ended up bequeathing to many of its communities.

In Misrata, a big part of the story turns on the city’s remarkable sense of self-reliance — fueled, perhaps, by local pride in its status as Libya’s unofficial commercial capital. The revolution was still under way when a group of businesspeople got together to plan the refurbishment of Misrata Airport, which was heavily damaged during the war. Thanks to private funding, though, the airport re-opened for business in December 2011, just two months after Qaddafi’s death. Where only domestic airlines operated before, now there are regular flights by Tunisian, Turkish, and Jordanian airlines. Local business assistance has also boosted Misrata’s port, which recently reached 90 percent of its prewar capacity. When Misrata’s local TV station fell behind in payments to the satellite broadcasting company that carries its signal, Misrata tycoons stepped in and paid off the arrears.

The Local Council has shown its share of initiative. One of its achievements is the establishment of a one-stop shop for Misratans wishing to start new businesses. In Qaddafi’s day, registering a new commercial enterprise required days of red tape (and attendant bribes). Now you can do it all in a morning (and local businessmen say that most of the graft has fallen away as a result). Despite its vows of compliance with national law, the local government has also dramatically simplified procedures for all goods passing through the port. "We’re trying to make it easier for people to get approvals for export and import," says Shaklawon. "It used to be you had to go all the way to Tripoli. Now we’re making it possible to get the papers here." Misrata even sends its own trade delegations on trips abroad — just the sort of thing that has other Libyans understandably wondering whether the city is contemplating breaking away from the rest of the country.

The business environment also enjoys another advantage: Security in the city is comparatively good. The reason seems to be that the myriad of local militias spawned by the revolution have largely fused with the local administration. Shaklawon says that there are still some 250 qatiba ("brigades," as they’re euphemistically known) in Misrata, but he insists that they’re all seamlessly integrated into the municipal security plan, which assigns them specific tasks under the auspices of Libya Shield, the central government’s initiative for re-integrating the revolutionary fighters into an internal security force. Shaklawon hastens to reassure the skeptical outsider that the brigades know their limits: "No qatiba in the city can move a tank from one base to another without the Local Council’s permission." Getting the fighters to give up their tanks in the first place, though, seems to be out of the question.

As that detail suggests, the militias are showing little inclination to vanish from the scene. The young men of Misrata still happily tout their membership in their neighborhood qatiba in much the same way that their equivalents elsewhere would identify with sports teams.. The qatiba still provide a much-needed source of cohesion and identity in a chaotic world. (Some of the militias even have social centers where their members can while away their spare time.)

Yet even Misratans are aware that keeping the militias around isn’t a viable long-term solution. "Security is starting to get bad," says Abdal Gadar Fasuk, a local journalist. Many Misratans blame the troubles on sabotage by Qaddafi loyalists, but the real reason is simpler. People, he says, "don’t respect the laws. They’re using guns to solve their personal problems."

It’s not much of a stretch to say that the same principle applies to some of Misrata’s dealings with the rest of Libya. If Misrata is starting to look something like a quasi-autonomous city-state, then it’s the Misratan militias stationed in other parts of the country that are the primary tools of its foreign policy. Last year Misratan militias staged a punitive attack on the city of Bani Walid, which they regarded as a stronghold of unrepentant Qaddafi supporters. Misrata’s qatiba are also responsible for preventing the return of some 35,000 people from the city of Tawergha who were expelled from their homes for their presumed loyalty to the old regime back in 2011.

There are still even some Misratan militia detachments in Tripoli — a holdover from revolutionary days that probably best exemplifies Libya’s continuing fragmentation. Many Libyans don’t see the elected interim legislature, the General National Council (GNC), as truly representing their interests. For a city like Misrata, whose inhabitants view themselves as the victims of decades of neglect under Qaddafi’s rule, having their own armed contingents in the capital is a way of making sure that their demands get heard — a kind of political insurance policy. Other cities (like the desert stronghold of Zintan) keep their own armed contingents in the city out of similar motives.

As the militias maneuver for advantage, the chance of devastating flare-ups always looms. Within just the past few days the government in Tripoli has seen fit to deploy Libya Shield forces loyal to it throughout the capital in order to prevent a possible "coup" against the GNC. (Some sources say it’s the largest mobilization since the end of the revolution.) Perhaps ironically, most of the Libya Shield forces involved are from Misrata — and so is their commander. Tripoli remains, to a certain degree, at the mercy of the outsiders, and there’s little reason to presume that this will change anytime soon. Amid the current turmoil, some Libyan cities are definitely more equal than others.